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Home / Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) / Genital Herpes / What does genital herpes look like?

What does genital herpes look like?

Understanding the Appearance of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection which causes small blisters to appear on or around the genital area. Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), of which there are two types, HSV-1 and HSV-2.

  • HSV-1 is typically spread through oral contact, leading to infections in or around the mouth (oral herpes or cold sores). It can also cause genital herpes.
  • HSV-2 is spread through sexual contact and results in genital herpes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 491 million people Trusted source World Health Organization (WHO) Government Source International Public Health Information Go to source aged 15–49 (13%) worldwide have an HSV-2 infection.

HSV is spread through direct skin-on-skin contact. This mainly occurs through vaginal, anal or oral sex or through kissing.

Once you are infected with HSV, the virus stays in your body. It lies dormant for long periods of time but triggers can reactivate it. If this happens, the herpes sores and blisters can reappear on the body, usually in the same area.

Where on the body can genital herpes appear?

Genital herpes appears in or around the genital region. In men, it can appear on the penis or scrotum. In women, it usually appears on the vulva and vagina. It can also appear on the thighs, buttocks and the area between the genitals and the anus (perianal region) in both men and women.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

There are different stages of a genital herpes outbreak:

Tingling stage

People who have recurrent herpes infections may experience a tingling or burning sensation before painful blisters appear.

During this stage, you may experience itching, irritation, tingling and pain around the genitals, buttocks, upper thighs and anal region.

Blister stage

Once the virus reaches the surface of the skin, it can cause small, red fluid-filled blisters to form around the genital area, buttocks, and upper thighs.

Open sores stage

These painful, fluid-filled bumps then burst and ooze out fluid. This action creates open sores or ulcers on the genitals and surrounding area.

Crusting and healing stage

During this stage, the sores or ulcers begin to dry out and scab over. You may feel an itching sensation as this happens. The healing process then begins and the scabs eventually fall off on their own.

Other common signs of genital herpes include pain when you pee and discharge from the vagina or urethra. People may also experience flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, tiredness, or a fever. Swollen glands in the groin, armpits and neck may also be present.

In between outbreaks, HSV is dormant and you won’t experience any symptoms. However, you are still infected with the virus during this time.

Genital herpes pictures:

Could it be genital herpes or something else?

Genital warts vs herpes

Both genital warts and genital herpes are STIs however, different viruses cause each condition. The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes genital warts.

Genital warts are small, skin-coloured lumps that look like 'cauliflowers' on the skin. Some warts may be white, red, pink or darker than the surrounding skin.

The warts may appear on their own or in a group of many. Sometimes, individual warts join together to form a large cluster. Warts can feel soft or firm depending on the part of the body they occur.

They generally do not cause symptoms but sometimes may be painful, itchy or can bleed. Some people may also experience pain or discomfort during sex and difficulty peeing.

Genital herpes vs shingles

Shingles is caused by a different strain of the herpes virus called the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chicken pox. After a chickenpox infection, the virus stays in the body and may be reactivated when the immune system is weak.

Before lesions appear, people may experience a burning, stabbing, or throbbing pain within a certain area. Following this, a rash typically appears and can develop into clusters of vesicles. The rash is usually painful, itchy, and/or tingly, similar to genital herpes.

With shingles, the rash often shows up as a band on just one side of the body. It's common on the trunk or face and only rarely in the genital area.

Another difference between these two infections is that HSV is more likely to cause multiple outbreaks, whereas shingles usually cause one episode.

Genital herpes vs syphilis

Syphilis is caused by a bacterial infection and is a different type of STI. Symptoms of syphilis are very similar to genital herpes and include small ulcers on your penis, vagina, or around your bottom. Unlike HSV, people may only have 1 ulcer, which is usually painless.

Sores can also occur in the mouth, on the lips or the hands. Similarly to HSV, people can also experience flu-like symptoms with syphilis.

Having a test is the only way to confirm if you have this STI.

How long do genital herpes symptoms last?

When you initially contract genital herpes, the first episode may last up to 3 weeks. Your first episode will likely be more severe than recurrent episodes. Recurrent episodes usually heal within 6 to 12 days.

Genital herpes is a long-lasting condition. Once you have the virus, it stays in your body. Some people will experience frequent outbreaks, while others may not have any symptoms.

Many people find that episodes occur:

  • when they are exhausted or burnt out
  • when they are stressed
  • around their period
  • when there is skin irritation in the genital area

Try to adjust your lifestyle to avoid or reduce your triggers.

How do you diagnose and treat it?

If you think you may have genital herpes, you should make an appointment with your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic. The test for this STI involves an examination of your genital area by a doctor. Usually, genital herpes can be diagnosed based on the appearance of blisters, sores, and ulcers.

Your doctor may take a swab for testing. To do this, they may break open a fluid-filled blister and use a swab to test this liquid.

Your doctor may also ask about your symptoms, ask if you’ve had a previous HSV infection and may take a brief sexual history.

Treatment for genital herpes may not always be necessary. However, your doctor may prescribe antiviral tablets to speed up healing and reduce the severity of an episode.

Image of antiviral prescription medication

Doctors prescribe these antivirals to treat genital herpes infections:

You can get a prescription for genital herpes treatments online at euroClinix. All you have to do is complete a medical form online that one of our doctors will review. If they approve, your medicines will be delivered to your chosen address. It's a quick, easy and efficient process.

Need discreet treatment?

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 12-01-2024
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