Here are some key facts:
You can read about genital herpes in more detail below.
Many people with the herpes simplex virus may not even realise because they may not get any visible signs or symptoms. If you do get symptoms they may include the following:
Altogether, the first outbreak can last up to two to four weeks with the sores generally healing within 5 to 10 days. The sores will eventually scab and heal without scarring.
The outbreaks that follow the first one are usually less severe and heal more quickly because your body will have had an opportunity to produce antibodies that fight infection. You will often start by feeling some tingling and possibly some flu-like symptoms. Some people find that certain things can trigger an outbreak, such as:
But remember, even if you don’t have any of these symptoms, it’s really important you go to be tested for STIs if you’ve had unprotected sex.
You also need to consider emergency contraception if you’ve had unprotected sex.
The virus enters the bodies through small cracks in the skin or through the soft, moist lining of the mouth, vagina, rectum, urethra (where urine comes out) and under the foreskin. After being in contact with the virus some people may experience an outbreak of genital herpes.
Herpes is passed on during sexual contact and is most likely to be passed on before, during or immediately after an outbreak. It is easiest to pass on when someone has blisters or sores. In some people the virus can be present without any symptoms of genital herpes and can be passed on. This is called asymptomatic shedding. Your doctor or nurse will advise you.
It is passed from one person to another through:
You cannot get herpes from hugging, sharing baths or towels, swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.
You don’t need to have had lots of partners and you or your partner may not have experienced symptoms to pass it on.
Genital herpes can be safely treated during pregnancy. It is important to discuss with your midwife if you have, or have had, herpes infections. The treatment you receive may depend on whether it is your first herpes infection and also where in the pregnancy you are but your midwife will advise you.
You can only have a check-up for herpes when you have signs or symptoms and if you start to develop signs and symptoms, have a check-up as soon as possible.
The doctor or nurse may be able to diagnose genital herpes by looking at the affected area however they will want to confirm this by taking a swab of fluid from the blisters in the affected area. This involves brushing a swab (similar to a cotton bud) over the blisters. It may sting a little but shouldn’t be painful.
The swab will be sent to a lab for testing and you will normally get your result within one to two weeks.
If you have no symptoms, there is no routine test for genital herpes but remember, if you’ve had unprotected sex, genital herpes is not the only thing you could have picked up. Don’t use the fact that you don’t have symptoms as an excuse not to go for STI tests. If you’ve had unprotected sex, don’t wait and hope for the best, have a test as soon as you can.
Cervical smear tests and routine blood tests will not detect herpes.
Genital herpes will clear by itself however, by seeking treatment early on, you can significantly reduce the time the outbreak lasts and it can help the healing process. It also reducing the risk of you passing it on to someone else.
There are two key parts to treating genital herpes:
The treatment works by preventing the virus from multiplying but it does not clear the virus from your body completely.
Treatment is usually started within five days of the start of the first outbreak, while blisters are still forming. Treatment involves taking antiviral tablets daily for five days. There are various types of antivirals that may be prescribed. Common ones include aciclovir, famciclovir and valaciclovir.
Antibiotics will not work because genital herpes is a virus not a bacteria. The treatment you buy for oral cold sores will not work either.
Some people find that another course of antivirals helps with further outbreaks. For people who have multiple outbreaks (usually more than six a year), they may be given longer courses of medication. This is known as suppressive treatment. This means taking antiviral medication for a longer time period. The doctor and nurse will advise if this is the appropriate therapy for you.
Things you can do to help
Antivirals are only designed to stop the virus multiplying and will not help your discomfort in the short term. For this, there are a few simple things you can do to ease discomfort and speed up the healing process:
The antivirals you will be prescribed are safe to use with hormonal contraception (like the pill, patch, injection or implant) but talk to the person prescribing the treatment to make sure.
It is strongly advised that you do not have any sexual contact before or during an outbreak and for a week after your symptoms have completely gone. If you find out that you do have genital herpes and your partner is experiencing symptoms, it is recommended that they seek treatment too.
Page last reviewed: June 2015
Next review due: June 2017