Herpes, or herpes simplex, is a viral infection. Mouth (oral) herpes causes blisters, cold sores or a sore throat. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes sores around the genitals and anus.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is herpes?

Herpes, or herpes simplex, is a viral infection that can affect both men and women.

You can catch herpes through skin-to-skin contact with someone who already has herpes.

In most cases, people don’t immediately know they’ve been infected. It stays in your system and can flare up from time to time. It can’t be cured, but you can manage your symptoms. Using a condom during sex can help prevent it from spreading.

In some cases, it can also spread to other parts of the body such as the fingers (known as a whitlow), eye, and brain. If a pregnant woman has herpes, her baby can be infected during birth.

How to tell if you have herpes

Most people don’t know they have herpes when they’re first infected, but they can still pass it on to others. It can take years for any symptoms to appear. The virus stays inside your nerves and can flare up from time to time. Herpes symptoms can last from a few days to about a month before slowly going away. They can include:

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for herpes

If you think you may have mouth herpes, your GP will look at any cold sores or other ulcers you may have. In most cases, they won’t need to carry out any further tests. They’ll be able to treat your symptoms and give you advice about how to avoid passing it on to other people.

If you have symptoms of genital herpes, your GP may suggest you go to a sexual health clinic. They may test for more than one type of STI. The doctor or nurse will take a sample of the discharge from one of the ulcers, using a small cotton bud, to send for analysis.

Causes of herpes

There are two types of herpes simplex viruses (HSV). HSV-1 affects the mouth but can also cause genital herpes. HSV-2 usually only affects the genitals, although it can also cause cold sores.

It’s passed on by skin contact, especially from damp areas such as the mouth, anus and genitals. You’re most at risk if you have oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has mouth or genital herpes. If you have a cold sore, you can pass on genital herpes to your partner if you have oral sex or touch their genitals after touching your mouth.

Common treatments for herpes

There’s no herpes cure, but treatment can help manage your symptoms.

Your GP may prescribe an antiviral medication and some over-the-counter painkillers and creams can also help.

If you have genital herpes, it’s important to let any previous sexual partners know so they can be tested.


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