- Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes infected sores, blisters, ulcers and cuts.
- It is caused by the herpes simplex virus which can be passed on even if the person doesn’t have symptoms.
- You can reduce your chances of getting genital herpes by using condoms or dental dams during sex.
- A healthcare professional can test for genital herpes by taking a swab from a blister.
- Treatment is available for herpes symptoms, but the virus will remain in the body and normally becomes active again, causing the blisters and ulcers to come back.
If you have had sex without a condom and are worried about STIs, get tested as soon as possible.
What is herpes?
Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of the virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
HSV-1 normally causes cold sores on your mouth and lips, while HSV-2 normally causes herpes around your genitals, anus or legs. However, this is not always the case. For example, it is possible to get genital herpes from someone who has a cold sore on their mouth.
It is also possible to have herpes outbreaks on other areas of skin such as your hands, face or nipples, but this is less common.
How serious is genital herpes?
Herpes causes blisters and ulcers. These can be painful but normally clear up within 2-3 weeks. However, the virus will remain dormant in your body and it is normal for herpes outbreaks to reoccur.
There is no cure for herpes, but there are things you can do to ease discomfort and avoid outbreaks.
People with suppressed immune systems, for example people living with HIV, might experience longer outbreaks and get more severe blistering.
It’s possible for pregnant women to pass herpes on to their children, causing what’s known as neonatal herpes (herpes in a baby). The virus is much more dangerous for babies and can cause miscarriages during pregnancy, and lead to brain damage, or even death in newborns.
How do you get genital herpes?
Herpes is most infectious during an outbreak (as well as immediately before and after). However, the virus can be passed on even when there are no symptoms.
The virus can enter your body through the moist skin around the genitals, mouth and anus (known as mucous membranes) as well as through small cuts (e.g. on your fingers or hands).
You can get genital herpes from:
- vaginal or anal sex without a condom or dental dam with someone who has genital herpes – even if they don’t have symptoms
- oral sex without a condom or dental dam from someone who has cold sores – even if they don’t have symptoms
- sharing sex toys that aren't washed or covered with a new condom each time they are used
- close genital contact – this means you can get herpes from someone even if there is no penetration, orgasm or ejaculation.
Be aware that the condom or dental dam must cover any blisters or you won’t be protected.
If you have genital herpes while pregnant you can pass the virus on to your unborn baby. Speak to your healthcare provider right away if you’re pregnant and worried you might have herpes.
Genital herpes, HIV and sexual health
- Having genital herpes increases your risk of getting and passing on HIV. The blisters and sores provide an easy transmission route for HIV during sex.
- For someone living with HIV, being recently infected with herpes or having a herpes outbreak will normally increase their viral load. This makes them more likely to pass on HIV when having sex without a condom, even if they’re taking HIV drugs (antiretrovirals).
- However, if they have an undetectable viral load (because they are taking antiretrovirals) there is no evidence that herpes makes them more likely to pass on HIV.
- Genital herpes is one of the most common infections in people living with HIV and can be a more serious condition if you’re HIV positive – meaning that outbreaks may last longer and blisters can be more severe.
- If you’re having recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes, you should have an HIV test, as this may be a sign of a weakened immune system caused by HIV.
- If you’re taking antiretrovirals it’s important to discuss with your doctor how treatment for herpes may interact with your HIV drugs.
If you are worried about HIV infection, find out everything you need to know in our HIV Transmission and Prevention section.
How do you avoid getting or passing on genital herpes?
- Avoid sex if either you or your partner has an outbreak (or if you feel like you might be about to get one). Wait until the symptoms have cleared up before having sex again.
- Use a new male or female condom or dental dam every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex.
- Remember that a condom or dental dam must cover any sores or you will not be protected.
- Cover sex toys with a new condom and wash them after use.
- Use a new dental dam or latex gloves for rimming and fingering (exploring your partner’s anus with your fingers, mouth or tongue) or use latex gloves for fisting, especially if you get herpes on your hands.
- Discuss your sexual health with your partner. Knowing each other’s sexual health status can help you decide together how to have safer sex.
- Having multiple sexual partners can also increase your risk of getting genital herpes. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it’s even more important to use condoms and have regular STI tests.
Note condoms are the best protection against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Taking PrEP doesn’t prevent herpes or pregnancy.
Ask your doctor or healthcare worker if you want more advice about safer sex.
What do genital herpes symptoms look like?
Most people with genital herpes don't have any symptoms when first infected, and they can take months or years to develop. If symptoms do occur when first infected, they usually develop in four to seven days. Symptoms are normally more severe the first time than in re-occurring infections.
Symptoms for women and men include:
- small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, anus (bottom), thighs and buttocks
- blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women
- vaginal discharge in women
- pain when passing urine (peeing)
- feeling unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms.
The symptoms normally clear up within 20 days.
Although symptoms of genital herpes can go by themselves, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in the body and symptoms may come back – this is called a recurrent outbreak. Recurrent outbreaks normally become shorter and less severe as your body learns to fight the virus more effectively.
If you’re having frequent herpes outbreaks, you may notice a tingling, burning or itching sensation around your genitals or down your leg before the blisters appear. It’s best to avoid having sex in this stage, as herpes can be more infectious in this period.
Can I get tested for genital herpes?
Yes – the tests normally involve taking a swab from a blister. So if you think you have a blister, it’s best to get it checked out right away.
If you have genital herpes you should be tested for other STIs.
It’s also advised that you tell your recent sexual partner/s so they can also get tested and treated. Many people who have genital herpes do not notice anything wrong, and by telling them you can help to stop the virus being passed on. It can also stop you from getting the infection again.
How is genital herpes treated?
There is no cure for herpes, and outbreaks will normally clear on their own. However, antiviral treatment can relieve the symptoms and reduce the chance of you passing herpes on.
Whether you receive treatment will often depend on whether it’s your first infection or if your symptoms keep coming back. For a first time infection, you would normally take an antiviral tablet. If you are experiencing a recurrent outbreak, you may only be offered antiviral tablets if your symptoms are severe.
You can ease your symptoms by:
- keeping the affected area clean using plain or salt water to prevent blisters or ulcers from becoming infected and help them heal quicker
- applying a wrapped up ice pack to the sores to ease the pain and speed up the healing process
- applying petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, to any blisters or ulcers to reduce the pain when passing urine
- asking a healthcare provider to recommend painkilling creams
- drinking plenty of fluids to dilute your urine - this will make passing urine less painful
- avoiding tight clothing because it may irritate the blisters and ulcers.
Don’t be tempted to pop the blisters as this can risk spreading the infection to other areas of skin. Avoid touching or rubbing the blister as this can also increase the risk of the infection spreading. If your herpes treatment requires you to apply cream to a sore, just gently pat the cream on, being careful not to rub around the surrounding area.
Don’t have sex until you or your partner have finished your treatment, and the blisters or ulcers have gone. If it’s your first outbreak, it’s sometimes advised that you check back with a healthcare provider before having sex again, to ensure that your symptoms have gone.
Complications of genital herpes
Speak to a healthcare professional if you are worried about complications.
- As with most STIs, genital herpes puts you at risk of other STIs, including HIV.
- In rare cases, blisters can become infected by other bacteria causing a skin infection that spreads to other parts of the body like the lips, hands or fingers.
- In some cases, herpes can cause bladder problems, meningitis or inflammation of the lining of the anus (bottom), particularly in men who have sex with men.
- Having herpes while pregnant can be dangerous for the baby. See your healthcare professional if you’re pregnant and think you might have herpes.
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