The main points
- Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmissible infections.
- It is transmitted from an infected person to a sexual partner through vaginal, anal or oral sex or by genital skin-to-skin contact.
- Very effective treatment (tablets) is available for the symptoms of herpes.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmissible infections. It is caused by either herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 or type 2.
HSV-1 infects both the mouth and genitals. HSV-2 usually infects the genitals but can infect the mouth.
HSV infection on the mouth can cause blisters, ulcers or sores, known as cold sores. HSV infection on the genitals can cause similar sores known as genital herpes.
Genital herpes can infect the skin on or around the genitals (vulva, penis, scrotum, buttocks, anus and upper thighs), vagina, cervix (top part of vagina) and rectum (anal passage).
How do you get genital herpes?
Genital herpes is mainly passed on during sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 or type 2. This may be during genital-to-genital contact, vaginal or anal sex and sharing sex toys. HSV can also be passed on during oral sex or rimming (mouth on anus), from mouth to genitals or genitals to mouth.
HSV is most contagious when a person has sores (blisters, ulcers or lesions), but it can also be passed on when there are no symptoms. Most HSV infections are passed on when a person is unaware they have the virus.
People with HSV-1 are at a lower risk of passing on the virus to sexual partners compared to people with HSV-2.
Genital herpes can affect anyone who is sexually active. It can be passed on whether your sexual partner/s are the same sex as you or a different sex.
How do I know if I have genital herpes?
Many people with herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 or type 2 do not know they have the virus because they do not have symptoms.
Some people might have symptoms such as:
- one or more painful sores (blisters, ulcers or lesions) in the genital area (including buttocks, anus and upper thighs) or on the mouth
- redness, itching, tingling or burning on the genital skin or in the vagina, penis or anus
- splits or cracks in the genital skin or on the mouth
- difficulty or pain (discomfort, stinging or burning) during urination (peeing)
- pain during sex
- a fever or flu-like illness.
The symptoms of HSV type 1 and type 2 are the same but may be different in how severe the symptoms are, and the chances of the symptoms returning (called recurrences). Usually, the symptoms of genital herpes with HSV-1 are less severe and less likely to return, than HSV-2.
Regardless of the HSV type, for most people, the initial outbreak of symptoms is the most severe and recurrences are less painful. Each person’s experience of genital herpes is different.
The symptoms of HSV can take weeks to years to develop, so it can be difficult to know when you were infected.
Testing for genital herpes is not a routine part of a sexual health screen. Usually, you will only be tested if you have symptoms.
What does a test involve?
If you have sores (blisters, ulcers or lesions), your doctor or nurse will examine your body and use a cotton swab to collect a sample from the sores. The swab test will tell you if you have genital herpes and if it is herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 or type 2.
You may be offered a blood test but this is usually not necessary.
You may choose to test for other STIs or BBVs at the same time as testing for genital herpes.
Family Planning Victoria (FPV) provides expert, confidential STI and BBV testing to Victorians. We also provide expert information, healthcare and support on a range of reproductive and sexual health matters. For more information on FPV clinical services, see our clinics or you can book an appointment online.
How is genital herpes treated?
There is no cure for genital herpes. However, there are several effective treatment options that aim to:
- ease symptoms
- reduce the number of recurrences
- reduce the chance of passing on HSV.
Treatment options include:
- antiviral medications which prevent the virus from multiplying
- pain relief medication
- lignocaine cream (to numb pain).
Treatment can be taken either:
- when a person has symptoms, to reduce symptoms and prevent the virus from multiplying, or
- every day to suppress the virus, reduce the number of recurrences and reduce the chance of passing on HSV. This is called suppressive treatment.
If you have symptoms and your doctor or nurse thinks they are most likely to be caused by HSV, you may be offered treatment before your test results come back.
It is recommended you avoid sexual contact or use barrier protection (external condoms, internal condoms or dental dams) while you (and your current sexual partner/s) have sores, as this is when genital herpes is most contagious.
How is it treated?
Your doctor or nurse will give you a script for the antiviral medications to treat HSV symptoms which you can take to the pharmacy. Some medications to reduce HSV symptoms can be bought over the counter without a script such as pain relief and lignocaine cream.
What if I don't get treated?
Antiviral medications taken every day (suppressive treatment) can reduce the number of outbreaks of genital herpes and may also reduce the chance of passing the infection to your sexual partners, even if you do not have symptoms. Using condoms with water-based or silicone-based lubricants (lube) can also help to reduce the risk of passing on the infection.
A new infection with genital herpes or untreated genital herpes during pregnancy can cause serious health complications for you and your baby, particularly in the last 3 months of pregnancy. Speak with your doctor, nurse or midwife if you or your sexual partner/s have genital herpes or cold sores.
Having genital herpes sores (blisters, ulcers or lesions) can increase the risk of getting or spreading other sexually transmissible infections.
Will genital herpes come back?
There is no cure for genital herpes. Once you have HSV, it lives in your nerve pathways and symptoms may return at any time.
HSV symptoms are more likely to return:
- if you are stressed or rundown
- during menstruation
- when immunity is low such as during pregnancy, with certain medical conditions and during treatment for cancer.
Antiviral medications, taken every day, can control HSV and manage symptoms.
There is evidence to suggest having one type of HSV offers some protection from the other type of HSV, but this is not a guarantee. If you have one type of HSV, it is still possible to be infected with another type of HSV.
Do I need to let my sexual partner/s know I have genital herpes?
If you have been diagnosed with genital herpes you do not have to let your sexual partner/s know, although you may choose to tell them. It may be helpful for them to know so they can make informed decisions about ways to lower the chances of passing it on and whether to be tested and treated if needed.
There are some great websites to support you informing your sexual partners via a phone call, text message, letter or email. There are ways of doing this either personally or anonymously.
- Let Them Know
- The Drama Downunder – for men who have sex with men
- Better to know – for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Your doctor or nurse can assist with informing your current or previous sexual partners.
What should I do if my sexual partner has been diagnosed with an STI or a BBV?
You may be notified that a sexual partner of yours has been diagnosed with an STI or a BBV. Notification may be in person or via a phone call, text message, letter or email. You may have an infection too and be unaware as you may not have symptoms. See your doctor or nurse to discuss ways to lower the chances of passing it on, get tested and treated.
Will genital herpes affect my pregnancy or breastfeeding?
If you are infected with an STI or BBV during pregnancy it can cause serious health complications for both you and your baby. Complications can include:
- Infection in the uterus (womb).
- Passing the infection to the baby (during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding) causing health conditions.
- Premature (early) birth.
Genital herpes can be passed on to a baby during delivery (birth). This is more likely if a person gets herpes simplex virus (HSV) in the last 3 months of pregnancy.
If you have genital herpes during pregnancy, there are medications that can be used to help reduce the chance of passing on HSV to your baby. Sometimes delivery by caesarean section is recommended.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and considering treatment for an STI or BBV, ask your doctor, nurse or midwife about the possible effects of the treatment on your baby or breastfeeding.
If you are planning a pregnancy or already pregnant, testing for genital herpes is not a routine part of health care. It is recommended you and your sexual partner/s have other STI and BBV screening tests, even if you have been tested in the past. You can speak to your doctor, nurse or midwife for more information.
How can I lower my risk of getting STIs?
You can lower your risk of getting STIs and BBVs by using barrier protection (external condoms, internal condoms or dental dams) correctly during any type of sex (vaginal, anal or oral sex) and when sharing sex toys.
Barrier protection is not 100% effective at preventing STIs.
You can also lower your risk of getting an STI by both you and your sexual partners having regular STI testing. To get a test at Family Planning Victoria, see our clinics or you can book an appointment online.
If your sexual partner/s have HSV, they may consider daily antiviral medication to suppress the virus and reduce the chance of passing on HSV to you. For more information you can talk to your doctor or nurse.
Where to get more information and support
- Family Planning Victoria
- Better Health Channel
- The Centre Clinic – a safe and friendly general practice, providing care for LGBTI community members as well as specialist medical care for people living with HIV, and expert sexual health screening and treatment.
- DirectLine 1800 888 236 – support for people affected by alcohol and other drugs including information on where to obtain new needles and syringes.
- Equinox – for transgender services
- Headspace – for young people
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre – a specialist sexual health clinic.
- Minus 18 – for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
- Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health – for culturally and linguistically diverse women.
- PRONTO! – a peer-led service for men who have sex with men.
- Thorne Harbour Health (formerly Victorian AIDS Council)
- TouchBase – information, support and services for LGBTI people.
- A doctor or nurse.
- Your local community health service
If you are using the internet for information, only use reliable and reputable websites. Be aware of websites containing inaccurate and harmful information and imagery.