What Are the Symptoms of Genital Herpes?

What To Look Out For

What do herpes sores look like? How do you know whether you have herpes? Find out which symptoms herpes causes and how to spot the first signs.

Dr Simran Deo Medical Editor

Medically reviewed by

Dr Simran Deo

Last reviewed: 12 Mar 2020

What Are Early Symptoms of Genital Herpes?

The first symptom of genital herpes that you are likely to notice is the inflammation of the skin on your genital area, which may burn or itch. This symptom often occurs within 1-2 weeks of being infected As the herpes episode progresses, blisters and ulcers develop. When the symptoms begin to subside, the ulcers form scabs, which then gradually disappear.Typical Symptoms during the early stages include:

  • Fever and flu-like symptoms
  • Burning or itching sensation in the genital area
  • Pain during urination
  • Feeling sick/nauseous
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Blisters

However, the incubation period of genital herpes varies and some people do not experience the first herpes outbreak until months or even years after infection.

When it occurs, the first outbreak may last for several weeks. Once the genital herpes symptoms have subsided, the virus becomes dormant again until something triggers a new outbreak.

Recurrent outbreaks tend to be less severe and pass quicker. Usually, patients learn to recognise the early signs of a herpes episode, which allows them to begin antiviral treatment promptly.

What Does Herpes Look Like?

Genital herpes sores develop in several stages. When you notice the first symptoms such as tingling and itching you may not be able to see any sores. Over the course of the coming days, blisters will form. The blisters tend to be red at first and they soon fill with liquid that is often yellow. Eventually, the blisters burst and then heal.

Can Herpes Cause Just One Sore?

Genital herpes outbreaks can differ in severity. While some people encounter multiple painful blisters, some only have one single sore. It is not uncommon for the symptoms to be so mild that they go unnoticed. 

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Where on Your Body Can You Get Herpes Sores?

The symptoms of genital herpes in women are essentially the same as in men. Because genital herpes affects the private parts, people often wrongly assume that the virus looks different in men and women.

In men, genital herpes sores can appear inside or on the:

  • penis
  • scrotum
  • groin and thighs
  • buttocks
  • around the anus

In women, the herpes blisters or sores can appear on the:

  • labia
  • inside the vagina
  • groin, thighs
  • on the buttocks and around the anus

In the case of female genital herpes, patients often experience pain when urinating and notice unusual vaginal discharge. Blisters inside the vagina can take up to three weeks to heal completely. Inflammation of the cervix (neck of the womb) can also be a sign of female genital herpes. If you are infected with herpes at a late stage during pregnancy, you must consult your doctor or midwife.

Genital herpes is not only transmitted during vaginal and anal intercourse. It also is possible to get genital herpes in the mouth, tongue, lips and other parts of the body. However, this is quite rare and it usually occurs when blisters are present during the time of intercourse.

How Long Does a Herpes Outbreak Last?

The duration of a herpes outbreak depends on how quickly your body can fight it and whether you take antiviral medication to speed up recovery. As a general rule, the first herpes outbreak tends to be the most severe one. In some cases, it can take 2 - 3 weeks to heal completely. Subsequent outbreaks are usually less severe and pass within a few days. As a general rule, the first ever herpes outbreak tends to be the most severe. In some cases, it can take 2 - 3 weeks to heal completely. Subsequent outbreaks are usually less severe and pass within a few days.

Herpes sores typically develop in the following stages:

  • tingling or itching sensation in the affected area - this usually happens in the first 12 - 24 hours
  • blisters form and fill with liquid
  • blisters open and turn into sores
  • ulcers turn into scabs and heal

How Can I Manage the Symptoms?

In addition to taking antiviral tablets you can alleviate symptoms by trying the following:

  • Keep the area clean to avoid infection. You can use an ice pack wrapped in a towel to reduce pain and soothe your skin.
  • Some people find topical anaesthetic creams such as Emla help
  • Drink plenty of fluids - this will dilute your urine and make passing urine less painful.
  • Avoid tight clothing as it may irritate the blisters and sores further.

Herpes Outbreaks – How Often Do the Symptoms Recur?

Some people have only one herpes outbreak and then may not suffer from it again while others may suffer numerous episodes a year. On average, the number of outbreaks and the symptoms they cause also depends on the type of herpes virus you are infected with.

Recurrent outbreaks tend to be less severe than the first. They usually don't take as long as the first outbreak to resolve and you are likely to have a smaller number of blisters.

How Can I Prevent Herpes Outbreaks?

A healthy immune system tends to keep the virus at bay, so living healthily and eating a balanced diet may help to prevent recurring outbreaks.

Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption is thought to reduce the chance of outbreaks. Some patients find that stress increases their risk of a herpes episode. In some cases, sunburn has also been found to be a possible trigger. However, no one really knows the exact triggers.

When you start to feel the symptoms of an outbreak you can start taking aciclovir tablets straight away to keep the outbreak to a minimum.

What Are the Symptoms of Anal Herpes?

Genital herpes sore can appear on your anus, especially if the virus is transmitted during anal sex. You may notice red bumps or blisters around your anus. Anal herpes can also cause pain, discharge and constipation.

Is Herpes Itchy?

At the beginning of a herpes outbreak, you may experience a tingling, itching or burning sensation. As the episode progresses blisters may form and as they do the itching sensation usually stops and the blisters start becoming painful rather than itchy.

I Have Herpes Symptoms. Does That Mean I Can Pass the Virus On?

Genital herpes symptoms differ between patients. While some people develop the blisters within a week of infection, others do not experience any symptoms. The most common early sign of a herpes outbreak is a burning or itching sensation on or near to the genitals.

Some people carry the herpes virus without developing any symptoms of it. This makes it easy to pass on to others. The virus is particularly contagious when blisters form to the time the scabs heal off completely, but you can pass it on even if you don’t have symptoms.

I Have Herpes Symptoms – What Should I Do?

1. Get diagnosed

Sores or bumps on your genitals can be caused by a range of conditions. You should see a doctor or you can use our online photo diagnosis to get diagnosed. If you have sores present you can also get a swab test to determine if herpes is the diagnosis.

2. Get treated

Antiviral medication helps your body to fight the herpes virus and speeds up recovery from it. You can get treatment for it from your GP or order online from Superdrug Online Doctor.

3. Prevent further outbreaks

Following a healthy lifestyle and avoiding stress are believed to help reduce the risk of recurrent outbreaks. You may also notice that certain things trigger outbreaks, which will help you to avoid these in the future, therefore reducing your outbreaks. If you suffer from 6 or more outbreaks in a year you may wish to consider suppressive treatment.

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