Health A to Z
Genital herpes is a common infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It causes painful blisters on the genitals and the surrounding areas.
As genital herpes can be passed to others through intimate sexual contact, it's often referred to as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
HSV can affect any mucous membrane (moist lining), such as those found in the mouth (cold sores).
Genital herpes is a chronic (long-term) condition. The virus remains in your body and can become active again. The average rate of recurrence is four to five times in the first two years after being infected. However, over time, it tends to become active less frequently and each outbreak becomes less severe.
Read more about the symptoms of genital herpes.
There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV), type 1 and type 2. Both types are highly contagious and can be passed easily from one person to another by direct contact.
Genital herpes is usually transmitted by having sex (vaginal, anal or oral) with an infected person. Even if someone with genital herpes doesn't have any symptoms, it's possible for them to pass the condition on to a sexual partner.
At least eight out of 10 people who carry the virus are unaware they have been infected because there are often few or no initial symptoms. However, certain triggers can activate the virus, causing an outbreak of genital herpes.
Read more about the causes of genital herpes.
Genital herpes is a common condition, especially in people from 20 to 24 years old.
In 2013, 32,279 people attended a sexual health clinic in England with an attack of genital herpes for the first time.
Read more about how genital herpes is diagnosed.
Although there's no cure for genital herpes, the symptoms can usually be controlled using antiviral medicines.
Read more about how genital herpes is treated.
Genital herpes can cause problems during pregnancy. These complications can be more serious depending on whether you already have genital herpes, or develop it for the first time while pregnant.
Read more about complications of genital herpes.
Most people with the herpes simplex virus (HSV) don't experience any symptoms of genital herpes when first infected. As a result, many people don't know they have the condition.
Symptoms may not appear until months or sometimes years after you're 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.
The symptoms of genital herpes for the first time include:
These symptoms may last up to 20 days. However, the sores will eventually scab and heal without scarring.
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:
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.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The virus is highly contagious and spreads from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact, such as during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
There are two types of HSV:
Genital herpes is caused by both type 1 and type 2 HSV.
Whenever HSV is present on the surface of your skin it can be passed on to a partner. The virus passes easily through the moist skin that lines your genitals, mouth and anus (the opening where solid waste leaves the body).
In some cases it is also possible to become infected by coming into contact with other parts of the body that can be affected by HSV, such as the eyes and skin. For example, you can catch genital herpes if you have oral sex with someone who has a cold sore. A cold sore is a blister-like lesion around the mouth that is also caused by HSV.
Genital herpes cannot usually be passed on through objects, such as towels, cutlery or cups because the virus dies very quickly when away from your skin. However, you may become infected by sharing sex toys with someone who has the virus.
Genital herpes is particularly easy to catch when an infected person has blisters or sores. However, it can be caught at any time, even when someone has no symptoms at all.
Once you have been infected with HSV, it can be reactivated every so often to cause a new episode of genital herpes. This is known as recurrence.
It is not completely understood why HSV is reactivated, but certain triggers may be responsible for the symptoms of genital herpes recurring.
For example, friction in your genital area during sexual intercourse may cause a recurrence. Using a lubricant can help – these are available from pharmacies without needing a prescription.
Other possible triggers include:
Genital herpes can be diagnosed more easily and accurately when the infection is still active, so you should seek medical attention as soon as you develop symptoms.
If you think you may have genital herpes for the first time (a primary infection), you should visit your local sexual health clinic (see below) as soon as possible. These are also called genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics.
Wherever possible, an initial diagnosis of genital herpes should be made by a GUM specialist. If you cannot get to a GUM clinic, you should see your GP instead. They may refer you to a GUM specialist for a formal diagnosis and treatment.
When being tested for genital herpes you may also be asked:
A swab is used to collect a sample of fluid from a blister. A swab is a small piece of absorbent material, such as gauze or cotton, which is attached to the end of a stick or wire. The sample will be sent to a laboratory to be tested for the herpes simplex virus (HSV). You may also be screened for other STIs.
You should be aware that even if your swab result comes back negative for HSV, you may still have genital herpes and a diagnosis will only be confirmed by any recurrent outbreaks.
Some sexual health clinics are walk-in clinics, whereas others require you to book an appointment. Phone the clinic to find out.
When you attend a clinic, you will be asked for some details including:
If you are attending the clinic for genital herpes, you may be offered tests for other STIs. You do not have to agree to have these tests, but it is recommended that you do. Tests can only be carried out with your consent. You may need to give a urine or blood sample for other STI tests.
Results from tests for STIs are usually available in a few weeks. If you need treatment, this will be discussed with you.
If you have an STI, your partner (and recent previous partners) will need to be tested and, if necessary, treated to prevent the infection being passed to anyone else.
Staff at the sexual health clinic will be able to advise you about which of your sexual partners will need to be contacted, and may be able to contact them on your behalf. If you wish, your anonymity will be protected when contacting your previous sexual partners.
Read more information about visiting a sexual health clinic.
Sexual health services are free of charge and they are available to everyone, regardless of age. If you go to your GP, you will probably have to pay a prescription charge for any treatment you require.
Check-ups and treatments for STIs at GP surgeries and GUM clinics are completely confidential. Your parents or carers will not be told, even if you are under 16 years of age.
However, you may be advised to contact your partner and any previous partners so they can be tested and treated as well. Staff at the GUM clinic may be able to help you with this.
If you have genital herpes and you are pregnant, it is very important you are referred for specialist treatment. This is because the infection could pass to your unborn baby.
Read about complications of genital herpes for more information about genital herpes and pregnancy.
You should also be referred for specialist treatment if you have a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence system), for example, if you:
If you have a weakened immune system you will need specialist treatment because genital herpes can last longer and be more severe.
Treatment for genital herpes will depend on whether you have the infection for the first time (a primary infection) or your symptoms keep coming back (a recurrent outbreak).
If you have genital herpes for the first time, see your GP or visit your local GUM clinic (also called sexual health clinics). They may prescribe antiviral tablets, such as aciclovir, which you will need to take five times a day.
Aciclovir works by preventing HSV from multiplying. However, it does not clear the virus from your body completely and does not have any effect once you stop taking it.
You will need to take a course of aciclovir for at least five days, or longer if you still have new blisters and open sores forming on your genital area when your treatment begins.
Aciclovir can cause some side effects, including being sick and headaches.
For more information, see the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine or read our medicines information page.
You should visit your GP if you have been diagnosed with genital herpes before and are experiencing a recurrent outbreak.
If the symptoms are mild, your GP may suggest things you can do at home to help ease your symptoms without the need for treatment.
If your symptoms are more severe, you may be prescribed antiviral tablets (aciclovir), which you will need to take five times a day for five days.
If you have fewer than six recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes in a year, your GP may prescribe a five-day course of aciclovir each time you experience tingling or numbness before symptoms begin. This is known as episodic treatment.
If you have more than six recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes in a year, or if your symptoms are particularly severe and causing you distress, you may need to take aciclovir every day as part of a long-term treatment plan.
This is known as suppressive treatment and aims to prevent further outbreaks developing. In this instance, it is likely you will need to take aciclovir twice a day for six to 12 months.
It is important to note that while suppressive treatment can reduce the risk of passing HSV on to your partner, it cannot prevent it altogether. Your GP may refer you for specialist advice if you are concerned about transmitting the virus to your partner.
Suppressive treatment will usually be stopped after 12 months. As long as recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes are infrequent and mild, you will only need to take a five-day course of aciclovir as and when it is needed. Episodes of recurrent genital herpes usually become less frequent and less severe after around two years.
Suppressive treatment may be restarted if you have further severe outbreaks. Your GP may refer you for specialist treatment if you continue to have outbreaks of genital herpes while you are having suppressive treatment.
If you are experiencing recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes you should also consider being tested for HIV. This may be a sign of a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness), which may indicate you have HIV.
Read about diagnosing HIV for more information about getting tested for this condition.
If you have HIV and genital herpes you will be referred to a GUM specialist. This is because genital herpes can be a more serious condition in people with HIV.
In rare cases, the blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) can become infected by other bacteria. If this happens, it could cause a skin infection to spread to other parts of your body, such as the lips, hands or fingers.
In very rare cases, the virus can spread to areas of the body such as the brain, eyes, liver or lungs. People with a weakened immune system are at higher risk of these complications. For example, people with HIV or those using certain medications.
In some instances, the herpes virus can pose problems during pregnancy and may be passed to the baby around the time of the birth.
If you had genital herpes before becoming pregnant, the risk to your baby is very low. This is because during the last few months of your pregnancy, you will pass all the protective antibodies (proteins that fight infection) to your baby. These will protect your baby during the birth and for several months afterwards.
Even if you have recurrent episodes of genital herpes throughout your pregnancy, your baby should not be at increased risk. However, you may need to take an antiviral medication, such as aciclovir, continuously from week 36 of the pregnancy until the birth to reduce the severity of your symptoms.
If you have genital herpes blisters or ulcers (open sores) at the time of the birth, the chance of passing the infection on to your baby rises to three in 100.
If you develop genital herpes for the first time (primary infection) during the first or second trimester (up to week 26 of the pregnancy), there is no increased risk of miscarriage or your baby developing developmental problems.
If you develop genital herpes for the first time during the third trimester (week 27 of the pregnancy until birth), particularly during the last six weeks of the pregnancy, the risk of passing the virus on to your baby is considerably higher.
This is because you will not have time to develop protective antibodies to pass to your baby, and the virus can be passed to your baby before or during the birth.
To prevent this happening, you may need to have a caesarean section delivery. A caesarean section is an operation to deliver your baby by making a cut in the front wall of your abdomen (tummy) and womb. If you give birth vaginally, the risk of passing the virus on to your baby is around four in 10.
If you develop genital herpes during the latter stages of pregnancy, you will need to take antiviral medicine continuously for the last four weeks of your pregnancy. However, this may not prevent the need for a caesarean.
Neonatal herpes is where a baby catches the herpes simplex virus around the time of the birth. It can be serious and, in some cases, fatal. However, in the UK neonatal herpes is rare, affecting one or two babies in every 100,000 live births.
There are three types of neonatal herpes that affect different parts of the body. Neonatal herpes can affect:
In babies with symptoms affecting only their eyes, mouth or skin, most will make a complete recovery with antiviral treatment. However, the condition is much more serious in cases where multiple organs are affected and nearly a third of infants with this type of neonatal herpes will die.
Read more about neonatal herpes.
The following advice can help prevent the herpes simplex virus (HSV) spreading to others.
If you have genital herpes, avoid having sex (vaginal, anal and oral) until any blisters or ulcers (open sores) around your genital area have cleared up. It's best not to have sex if you have symptoms of genital herpes because at this point the condition is highly contagious, even from the first tingle or itch.
Avoid sharing sex toys as they can also pass on sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you do share them, make sure you wash them and cover with a condom.
You should also avoid kissing your partner if either of you have a cold sore around your mouth.
Always use a condom while having any kind of sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal and oral), even after your symptoms have gone. This is particularly important when having sex with new partners.
However, while using a condom may help prevent genital herpes from spreading, the condom only covers the penis. If the virus is also present on or around your anus (the opening where solid waste leaves the body), it can still be passed on through sexual contact.
As HSV survives within the nerves of your skin, the virus may still be present on your skin after you no longer have any symptoms. This means there is still a chance you could pass it to someone else.
If you have genital herpes, and your partner experiences symptoms, they should be encouraged to visit a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic (also called sexual health clinics) so they can be tested for the condition.
A first case of genital herpes (a primary infection) often develops some time after exposure to the virus, so they may be unaware they are infected.
Read more information about visiting an STI clinic.
Emma, aged 23*, had her first episode of genital herpes in March 2006.
"When I first realised I had a sore down below, I really freaked out. I went straight to the sexual health clinic at my local hospital where they told me it looked like herpes simplex and took a swab. They gave me a five-day treatment of aciclovir and lidocaine ointment to relieve the itchy pain.
"When I got home, I searched the internet for ‘genital herpes’ but the sites I found gave scary, alarming and very negative information. Ten days later the clinic texted to say the swab test was positive for herpes simplex.
"I'd been with my boyfriend for two years and he was very supportive. I'm not sure if I got herpes from him as he has never had any symptoms. When I was a student I had a couple of partners, so I may have got it from one of them.
"During the summer, I had a small episode which disappeared overnight. It drove me to start worrying again. I then had another small recurrence and after this I decided that I would not allow this virus to take over my life.
"I found out about the Herpes Viruses Association through the web, and decided to give them a call. I spoke about my recent problems and they gave me loads of support and advice, and as much knowledge about the virus as I could take in.
"I've learned that life is too short to worry about a minor virus. It's not life-threatening and it doesn’t stop me from doing anything that I used to do. My boyfriend doesn’t think twice about me having herpes and still loves me for who I am, not what I have.
"There is such a huge stigma behind herpes that makes people hysterical and upset. However, we should treat it like facial herpes simplex (cold sores). No one freaks out about them but they're exactly the same thing, just on the face.
"My boyfriend always says to me that if he gets an episode, he will use the medicine and wait for it to clear up. He says, 'Is the virus life-threatening? No? Well then stop worrying and live life to the full.'
"I honestly can’t stress enough how genital herpes does not make him avoid having sex with me and he certainly doesn’t think any less of me."
* Name and age have been changed.