Herpes is caused by a virus that enters the body through the delicate, moist skin of the lips, throat, penis, vagina and rectum.

It stays inactive in nerve endings deep under the skin, only causing symptoms if it becomes active.



Blisters are the main symptom of herpes. After getting infected you may never get blisters, get them once or they may come back now and again – usually they are less painful and frequent over time.

You may see signs of infection within two weeks but sometimes it can be months – maybe years – after getting infected before symptoms first appear. You may not notice mild symptoms such as red or itchy skin, a rash or break in the skin or a small bump.

A herpes blister can appear in or around the mouth (known as ‘cold sores’), throat, penis, vagina or rectum; sometimes they may appear on the thighs, buttocks and other areas too. You may feel tired, with flu-like aches and swollen glands. Blisters are usually worse the first time they appear.

Before blisters appear your skin may itch, tingle or go red. They can be painful, especially when going to the toilet, and might cause discharge from the penis, vagina or rectum. Blisters hold an infectious clear liquid before they burst, scab over and heal within two to four weeks.


How its passed on

Herpes is passed on though skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex without condoms.

Infection is more likely when blisters are on the skin but it sometimes happens when no blisters are present. You won’t see blisters inside the vagina, throat or rectum. If you kiss or have oral sex when you have ‘cold sores’ on your mouth, you risk giving your partner herpes on their lips or genitals.

A person is infectious from the time they feel a blister starting until the scab heals. Male condoms or Femidoms (the female condom) cut the risk of getting or passing on herpes if they cover the affected area. Other types of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill, offer no protection against sexually transmitted infections.

Wash your hands after touching blisters, especially before handling contact lenses. Avoid things that trigger herpes outbreaks, such as lack of sleep, sunbathing or stress.

Having herpes makes it easier for someone to get or pass on HIV.


Tests and treatment

A herpes blood test exists but it is not used often because most adults already have the virus without it causing them any problems. Clinics will test blisters for the virus and treat the symptoms.

The herpes virus stays in your body for life but anti-viral creams or tablets stop blisters or make them heal more quickly, and can be used long-term to prevent symptoms. If blisters appear, pain-killing creams and bathing in salt water may help.

Most people get tested and treated for infections such as herpes at sexual health (or ‘GUM’) clinics. It is free and confidential – no one else, including your GP will be told about your visit. Some GP surgeries also test for and treat these infections.

The more people you have sex with, especially unprotected sex, the more chance you have of getting infections such as herpes. You can have them without knowing, so regular check-ups are a good idea, especially if you are starting a new relationship and/or you want to stop using condoms with your partner.


Page content supplied by www.tht.org.uk. Copyright 2012 © Terrence Higgins Trust.

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