Genital herpes - Symptoms 

Symptoms of genital herpes 

Most people with the herpes simplex virus (HSV) do not experience any symptoms of genital herpes when first infected and, as a result, they do not know they have the condition.

Symptoms may not appear until months or sometimes years after you are exposed to the virus.

If you experience symptoms when first infected, they usually appear four to seven days after you have been exposed to the virus. The symptoms are usually more severe first time around than in cases of recurrent infections.

Primary infection

The symptoms of genital herpes for the first time include:

  • painful red blisters that burst to leave open sores around your genitals, rectum (back passage), thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women
  • vaginal discharge in women
  • pain when you pass urine
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4°F) or over
  • a general feeling of being unwell, with aches and pains

These symptoms may last up to 20 days. However, the sores will eventually scab and heal without scarring.

Recurrent infections

Although the initial symptoms of genital herpes clear up, the virus remains dormant (inactive) in a nearby nerve. The virus may be reactivated from time to time, travelling back down the nerve to your skin and causing recurrent outbreaks.

Symptoms of a recurrent outbreak may include:

  • a tingling, burning or itching sensation around your genitals, and sometimes down your leg, before blisters appear 
  • painful red blisters that soon burst to leave sores around your genitals, rectum (back passage), thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women

Recurrent outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe. This is because your body has produced protective antibodies (proteins that fight infection) in reaction to the previous infection. Your body now recognises the virus and mounts a response that is able to fight HSV more effectively.

Over time, you should find any recurrent genital herpes infections become less frequent and less severe.

Read more about the causes of genital herpes.

Page last reviewed: 08/08/2012

Next review due: 08/08/2014

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