What you need to know about genital herpes
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Genital herpes is most easily passed on by contact with infected skin during sex. Treatment can reduce outbreaks and symptoms and may reduce the chances of passing genital herpes to sex partners, but the virus cannot be eliminated from the body. There are ways to lower the chance of getting or passing on genital herpes, such as the correct and consistent use of condoms during sex.
The words we use here – CATIE is committed to using language that is relevant to everyone. People use different terms to describe their bodies. This text uses medical terms, such as vagina and penis, to describe genitals.
Some people may use other terms, such as private parts or dick or front hole. CATIE acknowledges and respects that people use words that they are most comfortable with.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV infection can cause blisters on, around or in the genitals, anus, rectum, mouth or eyes. A person with genital herpes can pass it on to another person during sex. A pregnant person can pass it on to an infant during pregnancy or childbirth.
Many people with genital herpes have no symptoms or they mistake the symptoms for another condition, so they don’t know they have an infection. When symptoms do occur, they can take up to two to twelve days after getting the virus to appear.
Common symptoms of genital herpes can include:
- blisters (lesions), individually or in clusters, anywhere in the area of the genitals or anus
- itchy, tingly, burning or painful skin in affected areas
- pain in the legs or buttocks
- swollen lymph nodes in the groin
- watery discharge from the vagina
- fever, headache, muscle ache
Am I at risk of getting genital herpes?
Anyone who is sexually active, including people who experience sexual violence, can get genital herpes.
A person with genital herpes can pass it on even if they have no symptoms.
Genital herpes is easily passed on during sex without a condom; this includes vaginal and anal intercourse.
Genital herpes can also be passed on:
- when a person with the herpes virus in their mouth or throat gives oral sex to another person
- when a person gives oral sex to a person who has herpes virus on their genitals
- through oral-anal contact (rimming)
- through sharing sex toys or during a hand job or fingering if fluids containing the virus get onto the toy or hand
- from a pregnant person to a fetus or newborn during pregnancy or childbirth
Genital herpes and HIV
For people with HIV, genital herpes may increase the amount of HIV in bodily fluids and increase the chance of passing on HIV to sex partners.
Someone who has genital herpes may be more likely to get HIV if they are exposed to HIV during sex.
However, evidence shows that people living with HIV who are on effective HIV treatment do not transmit HIV sexually, even when they or their partners have an STI.
What can I do?
Reduce your chances of getting genital herpes
Avoid sexual contact if you are experiencing symptoms (such as blisters or tingling or burning in the skin).
Also avoid wet kissing if you have sores on your mouth or lips (“cold sore”).
Use a condom during vaginal and anal intercourse. Condoms are only effective if the area with herpes on it is covered by the condom.
Use a condom or oral dam during oral sex.
When sharing a sex toy, wash the sex toy and put a new condom on it between each use.
People with genital herpes can talk to a healthcare provider about treatments that reduce the frequency of outbreaks and may reduce the chances of passing genital herpes to sex partners.
There is no vaccine to protect against genital herpes or HSV.
The only way to know if you have genital herpes is to get tested. You should get tested if you experience symptoms of genital herpes, or if you have a current or recent sex partner diagnosed with genital herpes.
Consider getting tested if you:
- have condomless sex with multiple, or anonymous, partners
- have had another sexually transmitted or blood-borne infection (STBBI)
- are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant
A healthcare provider can do the test. The test involves taking a swab of the fluids from a herpes lesion (blister or ulcer). Blood tests can also determine if someone has a herpes infection, but blood tests are not able to determine the location of an infection.
It is a good idea to get tested for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, when you get tested for genital herpes. Other STIs can be passed on in the same way as genital herpes. Talk to your healthcare provider about how often you should get tested for genital herpes and other STIs.
If you have a genital herpes infection, antiviral medications can help to prevent outbreaks, reduce symptoms during an outbreak and reduce the chances of passing genital herpes to a partner. For these medicines to work, it is important that you take them exactly as directed by your healthcare provider.
During an outbreak, some people take over-the-counter pain medication, apply ice packs to the lesions, take warm baths with salt or baking soda and wear loose-fitting cotton underwear to help reduce pain or irritation.
This information sheet was developed in partnership with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).
Genital herpes – CATIE fact sheet