Herpes

What is it?

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types, HSV 1 and 2. Both types can infect the genital and anal area (genital herpes), the mouth and nose (cold sores), and fingers and hand (whitlows).

How do I catch it?

The virus enters the body through small cracks in the skin or the lining of the mouth, vagina, urethra (the tube which runs through a man's penis) and under the foreskin.

The herpes virus can be passed on by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, sharing sex toys, and skin-to-skin contact.

It is possible for a pregnant woman to pass the virus to her baby if she has an outbreak at the time of giving birth.

Symptoms

When infected with the herpes virus, some people will experience an outbreak of genital herpes. This can happen days, weeks or even months later.

Symptoms may consist of flu-like symptoms and stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area. Small fluid-filled blisters may appear, which burst to become painful ulcers. It may be very painful to pass urine.

The symptoms normally get better by themselves, and the virus then becomes inactive (dormant) and remains in the body. In some people the virus can become active again from time to time, and cause further outbreaks of genital herpes – known as recurrent herpes.

Some people can catch the herpes virus and never develop any symptoms.

Testing

The test for genital herpes is a swab taken from the skin when there is a blister or ulcer. Results are available within two weeks.

There is no routine test available if there are no obvious blisters or ulcers.

Treatment

Although the symptoms of genital herpes will clear up by themselves, severe outbreaks can be treated with antiviral tablets. This helps to ease the pain and speed up the healing process.

Other things you can do to ease the pain are:

  • take a cool shower
  • apply local anaesthetic cream (no other cream, ointment or lotion should be used unless prescribed by a doctor)
  • gently bathe the area with diluted salt water

You can also pass urine in a warm bath if it’s really painful, especially for women.

All Umbrella clinics provide treatment for sexually transmitted infections. To find clinics, and to see which services they offer, please see the service locator.

Find clinics and pharmacies

Worried about herpes?

How to avoid STIs

See the FPA website for a range of downloadable leaflets on contraception and sexually transmitted infections.

View FPA leaflets

The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) website also features a range of downloadable leaflets on STIs.

View BASHH leaflets