What are herpes and how do you get them?

Herpes is a virus that is spread by skin to skin contact. There are two forms of herpes: HSV-1, which causes cold sores around the mouth, and HSV-2, or genital herpes, which leads to sores around the genitals and anus. You can get herpes by kissing, oral sex, rimming, sex without condoms and even frottage. You can also get it by sharing sex toys. Cold sores on your mouth can be spread to another person's genitals or bum, and genital herpes can be spread to the mouth. 

How do I prevent it?

Condoms are recommended to limit transmission of genital herpes but are by no means completely effective. At the first sign of either form of herpes it is very important to avoid all sexual activities which involve the infected area coming into contact with your partner's body.

How do I know I've got it?

Herpes appears as small blisters that tingle, itch, or sting and are very painful when they burst. These are filled with a clear liquid, which later turns into a yellowish scab. These sores usually last between one and three weeks. Genital herpes inside your urethra (the tube you pee through) will be particularly painful when you pee or cum, while in your rectum it results in a burning sensation, especially when pooing. A person is most infectious shortly before the blisters appear and remains infectious until they scab over. The sores can increase your chance of catching HIV, because they provide a route for the virus to get into your blood.

Once you catch herpes, you have it for life, so it's likely you will continue to have outbreaks for years to come. But the longer you have it, the less frequent are the outbreaks. Cold sores can be triggered by any mild trauma such as dental treatment, abrasion of the lips (e.g. from snogging someone with stubble), overdoing it while sunbathing or using tanning beds, anxiety, food allergy, or any disease that produces a fever or increased metabolic rate. A sexual health clinic will check for signs of herpes as part of routine sexual health check-ups but if you have no visible sores it may go unnoticed. If herpes is suspected a sexual health clinic can test for it by taking a sample of blood, or a swab from one of the sores.

How do I get it treated?

There is no cure for either form of herpes although antiviral treatments in the form of creams or tablets can ease the pain and shorten the duration of the attack. If you have more than six outbreaks in a year, you should ask about antiviral suppression therapy at your GUM clinic.


LAST UPDATED: 09/01/2017