Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV).

There are 2 different types of the virus. Both of which affect the genitals.

Genital herpes causes painful blisters and sores on and around the genitals. It can also sometimes cause problems if you have it for the first time during pregnancy.

Symptoms of genital herpes

Most people with the herpes virus don’t notice any symptoms and don’t know they have it. So it’s important to get tested if you think you’re infected.

If you do get symptoms, it takes usually 2 to 12 days after contact for them to appear. Some people don’t get symptoms until months or sometimes years later.

Once you have the herpes infection, the virus stays in your body. It can lie dormant for long periods but can reactivate in the area that was originally infected. If this happens, the sores and blisters can reappear. This is known as a ‘recurrent episode’ of genital herpes.

This first episode of genital herpes may last from 2 to 4 weeks.

Repeated episodes are not usually as severe, or long, as the first and you may never have a repeat episode.

Symptoms of the first infection include:

  • spots or red bumps around the genital area
  • pain inside the vagina, head of penis or anus
  • vaginal discharge
  • pain peeing or being unable to pee
  • fever
  • flu-like symptoms, backache, headache and a temperature
  • mild swelling of the lymph glands in the groin, armpits and neck

If you have a recurrent infection, your symptoms may include:

  • a tingling or burning sensation before blisters appear
  • painful red blisters, which soon burst to leave ulcers
  • pain inside the vagina, head of penis or anus

When to get medical advice

Speak to your GP practice or midwife if:

  • you’re pregnant and think you have genital herpes

Testing for genital herpes

If you think you might have genital herpes, get tested for free by:

Your doctor or nurse may be able to diagnose by looking at symptoms such as blisters, sores and ulcers.

If you have visible blisters, your doctor or nurse may take a swab for testing. This is to check if it’s herpes and what type. The swab can also test for another STI which causes blisters called syphilis.

The genital herpes swab tests are very reliable, though if the ulcer is too dry then it may be less likely to find a positive result.

Treatment for genital herpes

Genital herpes can be treated with antiviral medication.

The symptoms of genital herpes can be treated, although it could keep coming back.

Symptoms of recurrent genital herpes will usually clear up without any treatment.

Some people experience recurrences of genital herpes. In these cases, a longer course of tablets should stop any recurrent episodes.

You can talk to your GP or nurse about which treatment options are right for you.

As there’s no screening test for herpes, partners should only have a test if they also have symptoms.

How genital herpes are passed on

You can get genital herpes:

  • from skin to skin contact with the infected area (including vaginal, anal and oral sex)
  • when there are no visible sores or blisters
  • if a cold sore touches your genitals or face
  • kissing (if the person has a cold sore on their face)
  • by sharing sex toys with someone who has herpes

Sometimes herpes can be passed on when your sexual partner has no visible sores or symptoms. This is because the virus can become active on the skin without causing any visible blisters or sores. This is sometimes called ‘asymptomatic shedding’.

This risk goes down during the first months after you catch herpes and is not likely after two years. However, it is more common when people are still having frequent recurrences.

Very rarely, herpes is passed to a newborn baby during childbirth. This is only likely to happen if a mother has her first episode of herpes after week 26 of the pregnancy. When women have had herpes longer than three months, normal delivery is expected even if there are symptoms at the time of delivery.

How to prevent genital herpes

The best way to reduce your risk of STIs is to practice safer sex. This means using a condom for vaginal, anal and oral sex.

If your partner has herpes, avoiding sex when they have visible sores reduces your risk of getting herpes.

Other STIs

If you’ve been diagnosed with herpes it’s recommended that you are tested for all STIs including:

This is even more important if you have recurrent episodes.

Last updated:
02 December 2022