Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) passed on through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Treatment from a sexual health clinic can help. Symptoms clear up on their own but can come back.

Check if you have genital herpes

Symptoms of genital herpes include:

Where genital herpes symptoms appear and what they look like
A small white blister on the lips outside the vagina. Shown on white skin.
Genital herpes can appear as a blister on the vagina.
A group of small light brown blisters on the shaft of a penis. Shown on dark brown skin.
Blisters can also appear on the penis in a group.
A group of small white blisters that are pink around the edge, including burst ones, on the buttocks. Shown on white skin.
You can also get blisters and sores on the buttocks.

Non-urgent advice: Go to a sexual health clinic as soon as possible if:

  • you have symptoms of genital herpes

Go even if you have not had sex for a long time, as blisters can take months or years to appear.


Why you should go to a sexual health clinic

You can see a GP, but they'll probably refer you to a sexual health clinic if they think you might have genital herpes.

Sexual health clinics treat problems with the genitals and urine system.

Many sexual health clinics offer a walk-in service, where you do not need an appointment.

They'll often get test results quicker than GP practices and you do not have to pay a prescription fee for treatment.

Find a sexual health clinic

What happens at a sexual health clinic

The doctor or nurse at the sexual health clinic will:

The test cannot:

Symptoms might not appear for weeks or even years after you're infected with the herpes virus.

Treatment for genital herpes

There's no cure for genital herpes. Symptoms clear up by themselves, but the blisters can come back (an outbreak or recurrence).

Treatment from a sexual health clinic can help.

Treatment the first time you have genital herpes

You may be prescribed:

If you've had symptoms for more than 5 days before you go to a sexual health clinic, you can still get tested to find out the cause.

Treatment if the blisters come back

Go to a GP or sexual health clinic if you've been diagnosed with genital herpes and need treatment for an outbreak.

Antiviral medicine may help shorten an outbreak by 1 or 2 days if you start taking it as soon as symptoms appear.

But outbreaks usually settle by themselves, so you may not need treatment.

Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than the first episode of genital herpes.

Over time, outbreaks tend to happen less often and be less severe. Some people never have outbreaks.

Some people who have more than 6 outbreaks in a year may benefit from taking antiviral medicine for 6 to 12 months.

If you still have outbreaks of genital herpes during this time, you may be referred to a specialist.

How to deal with outbreaks yourself

There are things you can do if you've been diagnosed with genital herpes and you're having an outbreak.


  • keep the area clean using plain or salt water to prevent blisters becoming infected

  • apply an ice pack wrapped in a flannel to soothe pain

  • apply petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) or painkilling cream (such as 5% lidocaine) to reduce pain when you pee

  • wash your hands before and after applying cream or jelly

  • pee while pouring water over your genitals to ease the pain


  • do not wear tight clothing that may irritate blisters or sores

  • do not put ice directly on the skin

  • do not touch your blisters or sores unless you're applying cream

  • do not have vaginal, anal or oral sex until the sores have gone away

How genital herpes is passed on

Genital herpes is very easy to pass on (contagious) from the first tingling or itching of a new outbreak (before any blisters appear) to when sores have fully healed.

You may also be able to pass on the virus even if you do not have any symptoms.

You can get genital herpes:

You cannot get genital herpes:

Protecting against genital herpes

You can reduce the chances of passing on genital herpes by:

Why genital herpes comes back

Genital herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex. Once you have the virus, it stays in your body.

It will not spread in your body to cause blisters elsewhere. It stays in a nearby nerve and causes blisters in the same area.

If you can, avoid things that trigger your symptoms.

Triggers can include:

Some triggers are unavoidable, including:

Genital herpes and HIV

Genital herpes can be a more serious condition for people with HIV.

If you have HIV and herpes, you'll be referred to a genitourinary medicine (GUM) specialist.

Genital herpes and pregnancy

Women who have had genital herpes before pregnancy can usually expect to have a healthy baby and a vaginal delivery.

However, if you have genital herpes during pregnancy, there's a risk your baby could develop a serious illness called neonatal herpes.

This can be fatal, but most babies recover with antiviral treatment.

The risk of your baby getting neonatal herpes is low if you've had genital herpes before.

It's higher if you get genital herpes for the first time within the last 6 weeks of your pregnancy.


See your midwife or a GP if you think you have genital herpes in pregnancy.

Genital herpes treatment in pregnancy

You may be offered antiviral treatment:

Many women with genital herpes have a vaginal delivery. You may be offered a caesarean, depending on your circumstances.

Page last reviewed: 27 June 2023
Next review due: 27 June 2026