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.

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

  • small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, anus, thighs or bottom
  • tingling, burning or itching around your genitals
  • pain when you pee
  • in women, vaginal discharge that's not usual for you

These can be 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.

See pictures of genital herpes on a vagina, penis and buttocks
A small white blister on the lips outside the vagina
Herpes blister on the vagina
A group of small blisters on the shaft of a penis
Herpes blisters on the penis
A group of small blisters, including burst ones, on the buttocks
Herpes blisters and sores on the buttocks
Information:

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

Treatment the first time you have genital herpes

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

Treatment from a sexual health clinic can help.

You may be prescribed:

If you have 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 have 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

If you have been diagnosed with genital herpes and you're having an outbreak:

Do

  • 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

Don’t

  • 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

You can get genital herpes:

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 cannot get genital herpes:

Protecting against genital herpes

You can reduce the chances of passing herpes on 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 with herpes before pregnancy can usually expect to have a healthy baby and a vaginal delivery.

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 have had genital herpes before.

It's higher if you get genital herpes for the first time in pregnancy.

Important: Important

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: 16 September 2020
Next review due: 16 September 2023