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Herpes symptoms and treatment

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes infected sores or blisters. It's spread through skin-to-skin contact – most often through vaginal, anal or oral sex.  

Treatment can help with herpes symptoms, but the virus cannot be cured and remains in the body for life. This means that blisters normally come back once in a while.  

You can reduce your chances of getting genital herpes by using condoms or dental dams during sex. 

What is herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes blisters and ulcers. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which is passed on through skin-to-skin contact. 

Herpes can affect various areas of the body but is most commonly found on the genitals, anus or mouth. The blisters heal with time, but the virus that causes them cannot be cured. Herpes outbreaks will often reoccur. 

How do you get herpes?

The virus can be passed on by: 

  • having any skin-to-skin contact with the infected area 

  • vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom or dental dam 

  • transferring the infection on fingers from someone else to your genitals 

  • sharing sex toys that aren't washed or covered with a new condom each time they are used. 

The virus is most infectious when you have blisters, but it can be passed on when someone has no symptoms. This is normally immediately before or after an outbreak. 

If you have genital herpes while pregnant you can pass the virus on to your unborn baby. It’s important to speak to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. 

For more details on herpes in pregnancy read our ‘in detail’ tab.

How do you prevent herpes?

Using a new external (male) or internal (female) condom or dental dam every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex will reduce the risk of herpes being passed on. If either you or your partner has a herpes outbreak (blisters) it’s best to wait until the symptoms have cleared up before having sex. 

Herpes can also be transmitted by sharing sex toys. To reduce this risk, avoid sharing your sex toys. Alternatively, make sure that they are washed and covered with a new condom between each use. 

Use a new dental dam or latex gloves for exploring your partner’s anus with your fingers, mouth or tongue. Use latex gloves for fisting. 

Wash your hands after touching blisters. This is especially important before handling contact lenses because herpes can cause an eye infection. 

Talking about your sexual health and infections with your partner(s) can help you make decisions about safer sex together.  

Having regular STI tests is one of the best ways to look after your sexual health. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it’s even more important to use condoms and get tested regularly. This is important even if you don’t have any symptoms.  

Taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the contraceptive pill or any other type of contraception – apart from condoms – won’t protect you from herpes and other STIs. 

Having herpes could make it easier for someone to get or pass on HIV. For more details on herpes and HIV read our ‘in detail’ tab.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

Many people with genital herpes won’t get any symptoms, or may get symptoms for the first time months or even years after they were infected. 

The most common symptoms of herpes are small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores. You can get herpes blisters on your penis, vagina, anus, throat, on the top of your thighs and buttocks. You can also get them around your mouth (where they're called cold sores). 

For most people, the first blisters go away within a month. Although the outbreaks clear-up by themselves, the virus stays in the body. This means that people usually get blisters again – which is called having a ‘recurrent outbreak’. Outbreaks usually become shorter and less severe over time. 

Other symptoms can include: 

  • pain when urinating (peeing) 

  • tingling or burning around the genitals 

  • feeling unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms 

  • unusual vaginal discharge in women. 

How do I test for herpes?

If you think you have symptoms of genital herpes or have been at risk of infection, you should speak to a healthcare professional.  

There are different tests available. If you have symptoms, the most common test is to take a swab from a blister. The fluid can be tested for the herpes simplex virus. A herpes blood test exists but is not routinely available. 

If you have genital herpes you should be tested for other STIs. It’s important that you tell your recent sexual partner/s so they can also get tested and treated. Many people who have herpes do not notice anything wrong, and by telling them you can help to stop the virus being passed on. 

How is herpes treated?

There is no cure for the herpes simplex virus. The blisters usually heal and go by themselves, so you may not always need treatment. If treatment is needed, there are antiviral medicines which can help. These can shorten outbreaks, relieve discomfort and stop symptoms from getting worse. 

The antiviral treatment is most effective when you take it within the first five days of symptoms appearing. Avoid touching the blisters as this can spread the infection. If treatment requires you to apply cream to a sore, gently pat the cream on, being careful not to rub around the surrounding area. 

You can ease your symptoms by: 

  • keeping the affected area clean using plain or salt water to prevent blisters or ulcers from becoming infected 

  • applying petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, to any blisters or ulcers to reduce pain when passing urine 

  • asking a healthcare provider to recommend painkilling creams 

  • avoiding tight clothing because it may irritate the blisters and ulcers. 

Don’t have sex until you or your partner have finished your treatment, and the blisters or ulcers have gone. Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than the first episode of genital herpes and over time they tend to occur less often. 

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Looking for more detailed information?

What effects does herpes have during pregnancy?

It’s really important to speak to a healthcare worker if you have herpes during pregnancy, especially if it's your first outbreak. If you have herpes there's a risk that your baby can develop ‘neonatal herpes’. This can be very dangerous or even fatal for your baby. Your healthcare provider will be able to prescribe antiviral treatment to keep your baby safe and help you have a healthy pregnancy. 

Speak to a healthcare worker for more information or if you have any concerns. 

Is there a link between herpes and HIV?

Genital herpes is one of the most common co-infections for people with HIV. It can be a more serious condition if you’re HIV positive - outbreaks may last longer and blisters can be more severe. If you’re having recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes, you should have an HIV test, as this may be a sign of a weakened immune system caused by HIV. 

Having an STI such as genital herpes can increase your risk of getting and passing on HIV. The blisters and sores provide an easy way for HIV to get into your body and cause an infection.  

People with HIV who aren’t on treatment or who have a lower CD4 count are more likely to get other infections, like herpes. 

If you’re taking antiretroviral treatment for HIV, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor. They can advise how treatment for herpes may interact with your HIV drugs.

How do I tell my recent sexual partner(s) I have herpes?

If you test positive for herpes, it’s important to tell any recent sexual partner(s). That way they can also get tested and treated if necessary. If you feel it is safe to do so then telling a partner is the responsible thing to do. It shows you respect them and want them to stay healthy. 

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