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Herpes Symptoms and Testing

What Is It ?

Herpes is a very common and highly infectious virus which has two types:

  • Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV I) – The most likely cause of cold sores, typically around the mouth. This virus can also be caught genitally through oral sex.
  • Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2  (HSV II) – The virus that typically causes sores, usually around the genitals. It may also be caught around the mouth through oral sex.

Your test will tell you which (if any) type of the virus you have.

HSV I infection can occur in many sexual and non-sexual ways.  It is also responsible for about half of “genital herpes” cases. HSV II, or genital herpes, is typically caught on the genitals and is transmitted through sexual contact. Up to half of those who have HSV II are unlikely to know they are infected as their symptoms will be minimal or non-existent. They are capable of infecting partners through sex when the virus is present on the genitals, causing pimples, little cuts, itchy or sore skin. Occasionally, there may be virus present with no visible signs, and it can be passed on (asymptomatic viral shedding).

How Can I Get It?

It is spread through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal contact (it does not have to be sex) with an infected person. The risk of catching or transmitting the virus is highest when you or your partner has blisters or sores. It is still possible to get herpes when your partner does not have any visible sores or blisters but this is much less likely. Recurrent symptoms are almost always on visible skin,- sores inside the vagina or anus are usually only present as part of a primary infection and are unlikely to accompany a recurrence.

HSV I is often spread by kissing which is why it is so common.

How Do I Know If I Have It?

HSV may cause blisters on the genital areas of both men and women. These blisters typically develop within 2 days to 3 weeks after first getting infected. The blisters start off as small bumps, grow into full blisters, and burst releasing fluid. Blisters can be small or large and can be just one blister, or many located close together. Other symptoms can include: painful itching, burning, headache, swollen glands in the groin, and generalised muscle aches. The first episode or outbreak is usually the most severe with later outbreaks becoming milder. Most people catch the virus without developing these symptoms.

Herpes Testing

We have three ways of testing for the virus:

  • Blood Test – our standard test whether or not you have symptoms
  • Urine Test – if you currently have symptoms
  • Swab Test – if you have a blister or other lesion for swabbing to see if it is caused by HSV.

You can choose your test method: urine or a swab if you have symptoms, and blood if you do not. Results are available 2- 5 working days from the sample being received in the lab depending on which sample is taken.  The test will say whether you have HSV I, HSV II, both or neither.


Like several other infections, once it is caught, HSV I and HSV II stay in the body forever. A minority of those infected get recurrent outbreaks. Fortunately, there are ways to decrease the frequency and severity of the outbreaks. There are anti-viral medications available (both creams and pills) which can help control the infection. In addition, there are lifestyle changes which can also help control the time between outbreaks and their severity. We can provide you with a prescription for medication and advice on lifestyle changes, to help you control the infection if you test positive.

Most carriers of HSV need no treatment because symptoms are slight or non-existent. For those who experience recurrences, there are several drugs which can prevent or treat them. Healthy lifestyle changes can also make a difference.

Adverse Consequences

Most people with herpes are able to control their symptoms with medication.  It is advised to abstain from sex, or to use a condom if you have symptoms.

Women who have carried the virus for sometime and who are pregnant, are unlikely to pass the infection to their baby.  However primary (first time) lesions that are exposed near the vaginal opening during delivery could cause the virus to be passed on to the baby, potentially causing serious neo-natal infection.  In these cases, a caesarean section is usually carried out. Recurrences at term are very unlikely to cause this problem so a natural birth is recommended for most women.

There is an increased chance of recurrent symptoms during pregnancy. These will not harm your baby but do mean that some women who have previously been asymptomatic may notice symptoms for the first time whist pregnant, if you are in any way worried then please consult your mid-wife.