Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) passed on through vaginal, anal and oral sex. There's no cure, but treatment from a sexual health clinic can help.
Go to a sexual health clinic if you have:
- small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, anus, thighs or buttocks
- pain when you pee
- aches, pains and flu-like symptoms
- tingling, burning or itching around your genitals
- in women, vaginal discharge that's not usual for you
Go even if you haven't had sex for a long time or the blisters have cleared up.
See pictures of genital herpes on a vagina, penis and buttocks
Why you should go to a sexual health clinic
You can see your 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 don't need an appointment. They'll often get test results quicker than GP practices.
What happens at a sexual health clinic
The doctor or nurse at the sexual health clinic will:
- ask about your symptoms and your sexual partners
- use a small cotton bud (swab) to take some fluid from one of your blisters or sores for testing
The test can't:
- be done if you don't have visible blisters or sores
- tell you how long you've had herpes or who you got it from
Symptoms might not appear for weeks or years after you're infected with the herpes virus.
If you have genital herpes, your previous sexual partners should get tested.
The doctor or nurse at the clinic can discuss this with you and help you tell your partners without letting them know it's you who has the virus.
Treatment for genital herpes
There's no cure, but treatment from the sexual health clinic can help.
The blisters may come back (an outbreak). See your GP if you've been diagnosed with genital herpes and need treatment for an outbreak.
You may be prescribed:
- antiviral tablets – these can be taken at the start of an outbreak to stop the symptoms getting worse, or every day for 6 to 12 months to prevent outbreaks
- cream for the pain
What do antivirals do?
Antiviral medicine suppresses the herpes virus by stopping it from multiplying. This should reduce or stop any symptoms.
If you still have outbreaks of genital herpes when you're taking antiviral treatment for 6 to 12 months, your GP may refer you for specialist treatment.
How to deal with outbreaks yourself
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
- wear tight clothing that may irritate blisters or sores
- put ice directly on the skin
- touch your blisters or sores unless you're applying cream
- have vaginal, anal or oral sex until the sores have gone away
How genital herpes is passed on
Genital herpes is very contagious (easy to pass on) during an outbreak.
You can get genital herpes:
- from skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex
- when there are no visible sores or blisters
- if a cold sore touches your genitals
- by transferring the infection on fingers from someone else to your genitals
- by sharing sex toys with someone who has herpes
You can't get genital herpes:
- through objects such as towels, cutlery or cups – the virus dies very quickly when away from your skin
Protecting against genital herpes
You can prevent passing herpes on by:
- using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex – but if the virus is present on skin not protected by a condom, it can still be passed on
- avoiding vaginal, anal or oral sex if you or your partner has blisters or sores, or a tingle or itch that means an outbreak is coming
- not sharing sex toys – if you do, wash them and put a condom on them
Why genital herpes comes back
Genital herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex. Once you have the virus, it stays in your skin for the rest of your life.
It won't 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:
- drinking large amounts of alcohol
- ultraviolet light – for example, from sunbeds
- friction in your genital area – for example, from sex (lubricant may help) or tight clothing
Some triggers are unavoidable, including:
- being unwell
- having a period
- surgery on your genital area
- a weakened immune system – for example, from having chemotherapy for cancer
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
If you have genital herpes in pregnancy, there's a risk your baby could develop a serious illness called neonatal herpes. Most babies recover, but it can be fatal.
See your midwife or GP if you think you have genital herpes in pregnancy.
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 in pregnancy.
Most women with genital herpes have a healthy baby.
Genital herpes treatment in pregnancy
You'll be offered antiviral treatment:
- to treat any outbreaks during pregnancy
- from 36 weeks to reduce the chance of an outbreak during the birth
- from diagnosis until the birth if you first get herpes after 28 weeks of pregnancy
Many women with genital herpes have a vaginal delivery. You may be offered a caesarean, depending on your circumstances.
If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.