Genital Herpes In Women
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It can be passed on through oral, vaginal, or anal sex after coming into contact with an infected person. Genital herpes in women can cause blisters, pain when peeing, unusual vaginal discharge, and pain and itching around your vagina or bottom. You can get antiviral medication to treat genital herpes but it can come back.
Symptoms of genital herpes in women
Genital herpes in women can cause symptoms such as:
- pain, tingling, burning, or itching inside or around your vagina or bottom
- small red blisters or sores that start to fill with whitish or clear liquid
- red, open sores that appear once your blisters have burst
- scabs which form once your sores start to heal
- pain when peeing
- vaginal discharge that is not normal for you
A herpes rash can look similar in men and women. You may notice blisters on your vulva, perineum, buttocks, anus, cervix, and inside of your vagina. If you have blisters inside your vagina, you may get spotting, which is light bleeding when you are not on your period.
Early signs of herpes in women
Usually, symptoms are mild at this stage so you may notice slight itching or tingling, especially after you pee. You may also see genital herpes blisters forming on or around your vagina or bottom. Some women get a few blisters whilst other women get a herpes rash, which is lots of small blisters. It can sometimes look like a shaving rash.
When blisters first start to form you may notice small red bumps around your vagina. These can appear inside or around your vagina and bottom. The blisters will start to fill with whitish or clear fluid and can be sensitive and painful. The skin around the blisters may also feel and look irritated, inflamed, or red.
You may feel unwell and have flu like symptoms, such as a headache, sore throat, and fever. This usually only happens during your first or initial outbreak.
How long does it take for symptoms to appear?
Genital herpes is different for every woman and some people get symptoms sooner than others. You may notice symptoms 2 days to 2 weeks after getting herpes, but this can be much longer. Sometimes symptoms can take months or years to appear, as the virus can live inside your body unnoticed.
When you have an initial outbreak, symptoms can last for around 2 to 4 weeks but treatment can help reduce this time. If you get another outbreak after this, symptoms are usually milder and last for less than a week.
Getting a herpes diagnosis
If you think you have genital herpes, you should get a genital herpes test kit that you can do at home or visit a local sexual health clinic. To use a genital herpes test kit, you must have sores or blisters on your genitals. You need to take a swab of the sore or blister for the test to be accurate. You can then send your sample to the lab, which will be tested for the virus that causes genital herpes (HSV-1 or HSV-2). You will receive your results through your online account and our doctors will discuss the next steps.
You can also visit a local sexual health clinic. Most clinics have appointments and offer a walk in service. The nurse or doctor will ask about your symptoms and sexual partners and then take a swab of your blisters. The sexual health clinic cannot do a swab unless you have a visible sore or blister.
HSV-1 vs HSV-2
The herpes simplex virus is categorised into 2 types which are HSV-1 and HSV-2. If you have a cold sore, you are likely to have HSV-1 as this is usually transmitted through mouth to mouth contact. Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus but are not classed as an STI.
HSV-1 can cause genital herpes if an infected person gives you oral sex, even if they do not have a visible cold sore. HSV-2 is an STI and causes genital herpes.
Is there a cure for herpes?
There is currently no cure for herpes although most cases go away on their own or with the help of treatment. Antiviral medication can also be used to prevent outbreaks and make further outbreaks less severe. Most people with herpes live a normal life. There is currently no vaccine for herpes, although there are clinical trials taking place to find a cure.
Herpes can sometimes cause complications during pregnancy which is why it is important to get tested if you think you have it. Your baby may be given antiviral medications but it is rare for herpes to be deadly.
If you have genital herpes, you should use a condom when having sex, including vaginal, anal, and oral. This can prevent genital herpes from being passed onto your sexual partner. You should also avoid sex or sexual contact when you have symptoms or blisters. Some things can trigger an outbreak, such as drinking alcohol, being unwell, smoking, stress, and your menstrual cycle.
Understanding your herpes triggers can make it easier to prevent a genital herpes outbreak and notice the first symptoms.
Preventing genital herpes
Women usually catch genital herpes through sexual contact with another person who has herpes. You can catch genital herpes:
- by sharing a sex toy with someone who has herpes if it is not clean and does not have a condom over it
- from skin to skin contact such as oral, vaginal, or oral sex with the infected area, even if there are no visible blisters or sores
- if a cold sore comes into contact with your genitals
- by transferring the virus on your or your sexual partner's hands from the infected person to your genitals
This means you can get genital herpes even if you do not have sex. You should avoid skin to skin and sexual contact if you think or know someone has herpes. You should also use a condom if you have sex. You will be protected from genital herpes with a condom as long as the infected area is covered. Avoid sharing sex toys to prevent the spread of genital herpes.
HSV-2 genital herpes is more common in women than men, so it is best to have regular STI testing whenever you change sexual partners and practice safe sex.
Treatment options for genital herpes
If you have genital herpes, antiviral medication can help symptoms go away faster and relieve soreness and itching around your vagina. The recommended genital herpes treatment is aciclovir, which is a tablet that can slow the growth of the herpes virus and help your body to kill it. The usual dose is 1 400mg tablet, 3 times a day, for 5 days. If aciclovir is not suitable or does not work, you can also be prescribed valaciclovir or famciclovir.
You can use aciclovir cream but this could cause burning, pain, or itching on your herpes sores. Tablets are recommended for more severe infections. To reduce any discomfort and pain during an outbreak, you can use over the counter pain medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen regularly. An ice pack can also be used to reduce inflammation on your genitals but make sure this is covered.
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion
Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.Meet our doctors
Last reviewed: 05 Jul 2022
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You can treat genital herpes two ways. One treatment option is for when you experience an individual outbreak (acute therapy) and the other is treatment for when you need to avoid regular outbreaks (suppressive). ZAVA offers both types of treatment through a discreet, convenient service.