Genital herpes symptoms in women

Dr Kathryn Basford

Medically reviewed by

Dr Kathryn Basford

Last reviewed: 29 Aug 2019

Signs, diagnosis, and treatment of genital herpes in women

Women looking up herpes in women on her smartphone

Key takeaways

  • Genital herpes is an infection of the skin caused by a virus.

  • It can affect both women and men.

  • It’s passed on by skin contact, usually through the mouth, vagina or bottom (anus), during sex.

  • Common symptoms include a change in vaginal discharge, pain when peeing, and blisters and ulcers in the affected areas.

  • Treatment that fights the virus will help to lessen the symptoms, and is available online through ZAVA or from your GP.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The virus grows in moist places like the areas around your penis and vagina, and can cause painful blisters.

Oral herpes (also known as ‘cold sores’) is also caused by HSV. You can pass the virus between the mouth and the genitals.

Roughly 9 out of 10 people around the world carry the herpes virus, even though they may not experience any symptoms.

How is genital herpes spread?

It’s easy to pass on genital herpes to people you come in close contact with, even if you have not had any symptoms or outbreaks. Most of the time, the herpes virus is spread through any skin-to-skin contact with the mouth, vagina or bottom (anus) of a person with genital herpes.

There are certain things that can make you more likely to get genital herpes:

  • Being female, as it’s more common in women than men
  • Changing sexual partners often
  • Having oral sex with someone that has a cold sore
  • Having sex with someone that has genital herpes
  • Not using condoms during sex or not using them in the right way
  • Some medical conditions like HIV can weaken the body’s defence against infection and make it easier to get sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like genital herpes

What are the signs of genital herpes in women?

The herpes virus can stay for months or years in specific cells of the body without causing any signs or symptoms. This is why women who have the virus may not know at first.

Certain things, like stress, being unwell or drinking a lot of alcohol, can cause the herpes virus to become active and travel to your skin. This is when you might begin to notice blisters and other symptoms.

The 1st time you notice symptoms of the virus is usually your 1st outbreak. You may experience more outbreaks if your symptoms return again, months after you’ve already treated the last outbreak.

1st outbreak

The 1st outbreak can happen within 2 weeks of coming into contact with the herpes virus, or months after. The symptoms are usually severe and may include:

  • vaginal discharge that is different from usual
  • pain when you pee
  • small red and painful blisters around your mouth, vagina and bottom (anus)
  • blisters and ulcers around the neck of your womb (cervix)
  • itching or burning around your genital area
  • generally feeling unwell with symptoms like fever and body aches

These symptoms may last up to 20 days. The blisters will slowly heal without leaving scars.

More outbreaks

Even though the symptoms from the 1st outbreak eventually clear up, the herpes virus never actually leaves the body. This means it can become active again, causing more outbreaks. Symptoms of these outbreaks are usually less severe and happen less often over time. They should clear up in about 7 to 10 days. Symptoms may include:

  • a tingling or burning feeling around your genital areas and thighs, before blisters begin to appear
  • painful and red blisters around your mouth, vagina and bottom (anus)
  • blisters and ulcers around the neck of your womb (cervix)

How do you diagnose genital herpes

If you think you have symptoms of genital herpes, you can get a reliable diagnosis by:

If you have symptoms, but you’re not sure whether it could be herpes, a photo assessment is the best option. If you think you have herpes but want to know for sure, you can use the home test kit to find out.

Photo assessment service

We offer a simple photo assessment service. Just follow these steps:

  • Complete a 2-minute questionnaire
  • Upload 2 good quality photos of the affected area
  • One of our doctors will message you a diagnosis and advice on the treatment options through your account
  • If they think it’s right for you, one of our doctors can also send you treatment by post

Genital herpes test kit

The genital herpes test kit contains a swab to take samples from any area of your body with symptoms. You’ll need to swab a sore or blister to get a sample that can be tested. You send the swab to our partner lab in a postage-paid envelope and we’ll send you the results within 2 to 3 days of the lab receiving the swab. If your test is positive our doctors will give you advice on what to do next.

GP or sexual health clinic

An appointment may include the following:

  • Questions about your symptoms, sexual partners, and any STIs you’ve had before
  • Check of any cold sores or blisters
  • A swab one of your blisters to check for the herpes virus
  • An offer of tests for other STIs

The doctor or nurse will make a diagnosis based on the information and offer treatment options.

How is genital herpes treated?

Treatment for genital herpes is the same for both men and women. You can get treatment through our online consultation service, or by getting a prescription from a GP. The antiviral treatment options include:

You should take each medication as prescribed and always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine before taking them.

If you experience severe outbreaks for up to 6 times a year, you’re likely to be prescribed antiviral treatment for 5 days (also known as ‘episodic treatment’) during each outbreak.

If you have more than 6 outbreaks within a year with very severe and upsetting symptoms, you may be advised to take antiviral medication everyday as part of a long-term treatment plan for up to 12 months. This is also called ‘suppressive treatment’ and helps to stop you from developing symptoms of genital herpes.

Suppressive treatment is usually stopped after 12 months to check if your outbreaks are happening less than before. You may be put back on a long-term treatment plan if you still experience severe symptoms and have more than 6 outbreaks within a year.

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How does contraception affect genital herpes?

Some studies have shown that women who use hormonal contraception are more likely to have a higher amount of the herpes virus on their skin without showing any symptoms. This will increase the risk of passing the herpes virus to a sexual partner, so it’s a good idea to also use condoms for protection during sex.

If you have symptoms of genital herpes, you should avoid having sex until they have cleared up and always use a condom even when you do not have any symptoms.

How can I avoid getting or spreading genital herpes

You can avoid getting or passing on genital herpes by taking a few precautions:

  • Always use a condom during sex (but be aware that you can still get the virus from any sores that are not covered by the condom)
  • Avoid sex if you notice you have symptoms
  • Ask any sexual partners about any sexually transmitted infections they may have
  • Check sexual partners for signs of genital herpes like blisters
  • Avoid having multiple sexual partners

Genital herpes and pregnancy

If you are pregnant and have symptoms of genital herpes, you should visit your GP or midwife, who will talk to you about a treatment and delivery plan.

Your baby may be at risk of getting herpes which can lead to death without treatment. The chance of this is usually higher if you get genital herpes for the 1st time during pregnancy. You may be given antiviral treatment throughout the rest of your pregnancy to prevent the virus from passing on to your baby.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Kathryn Basford

Dr Kathryn Basford is a qualified GP who works as a GP in London, as well as with ZAVA. She graduated from the University of Manchester and completed her GP training through Whipps Cross Hospital in London.

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Last reviewed: 29 Aug 2019

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