Expert Answers To Common Questions About Genital Herpes

Discover scientifically grounded answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about genital herpes in our latest guide from our experts.

Published: Wednesday 13 March 2024

genital herpes faqs

Managing genital herpes can sometimes feel daunting due to the prevalence of misconceptions and misinformation about the condition. Therefore, to help with understanding genital herpes more clearly, our experts have put together this comprehensive guide answering some of the most common questions about genital herpes based on the latest research.

Continue reading for detailed information about genital herpes treatments, risk factors, and much more.

Understanding Genital Herpes

How can genital herpes be contracted?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that can be contracted if either of the two strains of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV-1 or HSV-2) enter the body and replicate within the cells lining the genital areas.[1] Genital herpes is primarily caused by HSV-2, however, it can sometimes be caused by HSV-1 (which is more commonly associated with oral infections like cold sores) following oral-genital contact.

What does genital herpes look like?

According to the NHS[2], genital herpes infections typically manifest as blisters that can cause red sores to appear on and in the areas surrounding the genitals. If the infection is not treated, the bumps and blisters can burst, causing itching or tingling sensations around the genitals.

Can you have sex with genital herpes?

Yes, it is possible to have sex with genital herpes, but it is not recommended because of the high probability of viral transmission. The Herpes Simplex Virus is highly contagious and can be passed to previously unaffected individuals even if precautions are taken such as the use of barrier contraceptives like condoms.

Recommended reading: Living with herpes - Advice, dating and treatments

What’s the difference between genital herpes and cold sores?

Genital herpes and cold sores are different in terms of the areas affected and transmission mechanisms. Both conditions are caused by variants of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV); genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2, while cold sores is usually caused by HSV-1.

However, cold sores normally affect the lips and mouth, while genital herpes predominantly affects the genital area and can also affect the thighs, buttocks or anus. Moreover, genital herpes is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex, while cold sores can spread through kissing or sharing eating utensils and glassware with an affected person.

Is there a cure for genital herpes?

There is no cure for genital herpes, however, the symptoms can be managed by taking antiviral medication. It is vital to consult a medical professional about genital herpes treatment to determine suitable treatments and maximise the probability of reducing the symptoms.

What are the first signs of genital herpes?

The first sign of genital herpes is typically the appearance of small blisters in the genital area that can cause itching or burning. Blisters can appear in clusters and, if left untreated, can turn into sores once they burst and ooze fluid.

How common is genital herpes in the UK?

According to the government-funded data transparency service Local Government Inform,[3] genital herpes caused by HSV-2 is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the UK with an infection rate of 0.04% as of 2022.

Recommended reading: Herpes - Everything you need to know

Genital herpes symptoms and stages

What are the stages of genital herpes?

There are five stages of genital herpes - primary infection (the initial outbreak), the latent stage (viral dormancy), the prodrome stage (reactivation), the blister stage, and the healing stage.

The first stage marks the initial outbreak of genital herpes, which typically occurs within 20 days of exposure to the Herpes Simplex Virus. During this stage, the affected individual may experience some of the more prominent symptoms, such as itchy skin on the affected area. It is also common to experience a high temperature (fever) and slight swelling on the neck, under the chin or around the genital area (indicative of swelling in the lymph glands, which often occurs whenever the body fights a viral infection).[4]

The second stage begins once the initial symptoms subside. During this stage, the virus remains dormant in the body and can reactivate due to a trigger such as stress. If the virus reactivates (the third stage), the affected individual may experience subsequent outbreaks that produce less severe and shorter symptoms which repeatedly occur unless treatment is administered.

In the fourth stage after viral reactivation, red, itchy bumps can appear on the skin which can then turn into blisters filled with a white-coloured fluid. If the blisters burst, they can cause ulcers and sores that subsequently dry out and heal, forming scabs (the fifth stage).

Recommended reading: The five stages of a genital herpes outbreak

What are genital herpes symptoms in men?

The symptoms of genital herpes in men include pain while urinating and itchy skin on the thighs, buttocks and around the penis, followed by an outbreak of blisters in these areas. If the blisters burst, they can leave behind red, open sores in the affected areas. Some men may experience a cloudy or colourless discharge from the penis.

What are genital herpes symptoms for women?

The symptoms of genital herpes in women are largely the same as in men - pain while urinating and itchy skin on the thighs, buttocks, and around the vagina, followed by an outbreak of small blisters. Women experiencing their first genital herpes infection may also experience a vaginal discharge.[5]

What is genital herpes discharge?

Genital herpes discharge refers to a clear, white or cloudy discharge from the genitals. It is thought to be a result of the body’s inflammatory response to the Herpes Simplex Virus.

Recommended reading: Genital herpes - Symptoms, causes and treatments

Genital herpes treatments

What are the main genital herpes treatments?

Genital herpes treatment typically involves taking antiviral medication to suppress the Herpes Simplex Virus:

  • Aciclovir - Aciclovir tablets (also known as ‘Acyclovir’ outside of the UK) contain the active ingredient Aciclovir, which prevents HSV-2 replication in the body. This helps with reducing the duration and severity of the symptoms. It is vital to consult a pharmacist or doctor before taking Aciclovir for genital herpes.
  • Valaciclovir - Valaciclovir tablets (also known as ‘Valacyclovir’ outside of the UK) suppress HSV-2 via the same mechanism as Aciclovir. However, Valaciclovir converts into Aciclovir in the liver and intestines after being ingested, making it a more suitable genital herpes treatment for individuals who do not want to take antiviral medicines often.
  • Valtrex - Valtrex is medically identical to generic Valaciclovir, however, it is more expensive than Valaciclovir as it is a branded genital herpes medication.

Recommended reading: How to manage genital herpes

What are the best genital herpes tablets to take?

The best genital herpes tablets to take are the ones recommended to the affected individual by their pharmacist or doctor. This can be recommended based on factors including but not limited to the affected individual’s physiology and the severity and duration of the symptoms.

Can you buy genital herpes medication over the counter?

Genital herpes medications such as Aciclovir, Valaciclovir and Valtrex are not available over the counter as these treatments require a prescription based on a medical assessment of the affected individual as conducted by a pharmacist or doctor.

Recommended reading: Your guide to treating and suppressing herpes

Transmission and risk factors

Can you get genital herpes from a cold sore?

Yes, it is possible to get genital herpes from a cold sore. Cold sores are caused by HSV-1, which is a different variant of the same virus that causes genital herpes (HSV-2). If an individual affected by cold sores has oral sex with another individual, the virus may be transmitted to the genital area and cause genital herpes.

Can you get genital herpes from kissing?

Yes, an individual can get genital herpes from kissing. If an individual kisses a person affected by cold sores (caused by HSV-1) and then has oral sex with another person, the virus can be transmitted from the mouth to the genitals, potentially causing genital herpes.

Does genital herpes go away on its own?

Genital herpes does not go away on its own as HSV-2 stays dormant in the body after the initial outbreak subsides. The symptoms of genital herpes may heal on their own, however, this can take a considerable amount of time. To speed up the healing process, it is recommended to consult a medical professional about treating genital herpes by taking antiviral medication.

Recommended reading: 5 common myths about herpes

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  1. Zhu & Viejo-Borbolla. (2021). Pathogenesis and virulence of herpes simplex virus. Virulence, 12(1), pp. 2670-2702. doi: 10.1080%2F21505594.2021.1982373. [Accessed 12 March 2024].
  2. NHS. (n.d.). Genital herpes. Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2024].
  3. Johnson et al. (2021). Lymph node swelling combined with temporary effector T cell retention aids T cell response in a model of adaptive immunity. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 18:20210464. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0464. [Accessed 12 March 2024].
  4. Local Government Inform. (n.d.). Genital herpes diagnosis rate per 100,000 population [ID:8191]. Available at: [Accessed: 12 March 2024].
  5. NHS Inform. (n.d.). Genital herpes. Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2024].
Rehma Gill

Written by: Rehma Gill

Pharmacy Manager・GPHC Number 2225869

Rehma completed her pharmacy degree at the University of Portsmouth in 2019 and went on to complete her internship in community pharmacy. As a pharmacy manager and a responsible pharmacist here at Pharmica, Rehma’s responsibilities include managing day-to-day operations at the pharmacy and ensuring we provide outstanding service to our patients.

Carolina Goncalves

Medically Reviewed by: Carolina Goncalves

Superintendent Pharmacist・GPHC Number 2088658

Carolina Goncalves is the Superintendent Pharmacist at Pharmica, where she ensures patients receive exceptional healthcare and support, as part of a seamless online pharmacy service.

With a comprehensive professional background spanning more than 13 years, Carolina has extensive experience supporting Men’s and Women’s health. Carolina is responsible for providing expert treatment advice to thousands of patients in areas such as Sexual Health, Erectile Dysfunction, Hair Loss, Weight Loss and Asthma.

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Herpes: Everything You Need to Know
Herpes: Everything You Need to Know