Genital Herpes – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Genital herpes is a viral infection that affects the genitals and surrounding skin and causes an itchy skin rash and blisters on the genitals. Although genital herpes is not a fatal sexually transmitted disease (STD), it is incurable and those infected suffer with an unbearable itch, recurring sores and pain for a lifetime. The spread of genital herpes is on the rise globally, especially among teens but in South Africa, there is greater concern about unprotected sex resulting in HIV infection.

Causes of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), specifically HSV type 2. Cold sores or mouth sores may also be caused by the herpes simplex virus but this is usually caused by HSV type 1. HSV-2 is usually transmitted through sexual contact and cause more severe symptoms than the HSV-1 virus. The herpes virus quickly establishes itself as a latent infection on the nerves in the surrounding area where it recurs on a regular basis and affects the skin.

Signs & Symptoms of Genital Herpes

The signs and symptoms of genital herpes may not be evident throughout life and goes into phases of remission and then recurs.

  • Itchy skin rash
  • Red, inflamed patches on the skin
  • Tiny blisters (vesicles) that burst and form painful ulcers
  • Enlarged lymph nodes around the genitals

The ulcers usually heal within a 1 to 2 weeks but may persist in HIV/AIDS patients.


Acyclovir is effective in managing a genital herpes infection and is available in both topical (creams and gels) and oral forms. Acyclovir offers short term relief and may reduce the severity of future recurrences of genital herpes. A good diet, exercise and stress management helps delay the recurrence of symptoms but there is no cure for genital herpes.

Genital Herpes in Pregnancy

Pregnant women with genital herpes are often advised to have a caesarean section to prevent infecting the newborn baby, however, if a vaginal swab indicates that the infection is not active at the time of delivery, normal vaginal birth is possible. However, any signs of herpes infection in the newborn baby requires immediate treatment with acyclovir.