Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV can be passed on by any sexual contact, sharing sex toys, or skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. Although the symptoms of HSV will clear up by themselves, severe outbreaks can be treated with antiviral tablets.

What is it?

The herpes simplex virus (HSV for short) causes genital herpes. Both types (HSV 1 and 2) can infect the genital and anal area, and the mouth (cold sores).

How do I catch it?

HSV can get into the body through small cracks in the skin or lining of the mouth, or any mucosal surface on the genitals such as under the foreskin or around the vagina.

Having any sexual contact, sharing sex toys or skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus can all cause the transmission of HSV. Rarely HSV can be passed during pregnancy or childbirth. If you know that you have herpes and are pregnant, or you have symptoms of herpes during pregnancy, you should let your midwife know.

What symptoms could I have?

Only some people will notice symptoms when they get HSV. You might notice the symptoms days, weeks or months later.

If HSV has passed to your genitals or anal area, you might feel tingling, itching or stinging. You might see small, fluid filled blisters, and these can burst to become painful ulcers. Passing urine might also cause you pain. You might feel generally unwell, a bit like you have flu.

These symptoms will usually last between 1 and 2 weeks and then skin lesions will heal. HSV remains in the body, and you may see the sores or ulcers again in the future at the same location. Some people might have HSV and never display any symptoms.

How do you test for it?

A swab is taken from the skin where a blister or ulcer is. If you have no obvious blisters or ulcers, there is no routine test for HSV, but please talk to us if you have concerns.

You can use the service finder to find a testing service near you.

How do you treat it?

Antiviral tablets (aciclovir) can be used to help speed up the healing process of any skin lesions caused by HSV. Antivirals can ease discomfort and reduce the chance of other infection in the area.

Always seek help urgently if you have severe pain or if you are unable to pass urine.

If you don’t have any pain or discomfort, there is no need to take antivirals. If you have only one or two spots, these will likely heal by themselves.

Other things you can do to help ease the symptoms of HSV:

  • Gently bathe the area with diluted salt water (dissolve one tablespoon of cooking salt in a washing up bowl or a bathroom sink filled with warm water and bathe the affected skin 2-3 times a day).
  • Apply local anaesthetic cream. It is important that you don’t use any other lotions, ointments or creams unless they are prescribed.
  • Pass urine in a warm bath or in the shower.
  • Use simple painkillers such as paracetamol.
What about my sexual partner(s)?

You should avoid sexual contact if you think you have the symptoms of HSV as it can be easily passed on.

HSV is most infectious when there are blisters or ulcers to see on the skin, but it can be passed at other times. Using condoms for sex can reduce the risk of passing it on.