Genital herpes is very easy to pass on (contagious) from the first tingling or itching of a new outbreak (before any blisters appear) to when sores have fully healed.
You can get genital herpes:
- from skin-to-skin contact with the infected area (including vaginal, anal and oral sex)
- when there are no visible sores or blisters
- if a cold sore touches your genitals
- by transferring the infection on fingers from someone else to your genitals
- by sharing sex toys with someone who has herpes
You cannot get genital herpes:
- from objects such as towels, cutlery or cups – the virus dies very quickly when away from your skin
Protecting against genital herpes
You can reduce the chances of passing herpes on by:
- using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex – but herpes can still be passed on if the condom does not cover the infected area
- avoiding vaginal, anal or oral sex if you or your partner has blisters or sores, or a tingle or itch that means an outbreak is coming
- not sharing sex toys – if you do, wash them and put a condom on them
Why genital herpes comes back
Genital herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex. Once you have the virus, it stays in your body.
It will not spread in your body to cause blisters elsewhere. It stays in a nearby nerve and causes blisters in the same area.
If you can, avoid things that trigger your symptoms.
Triggers can include:
- ultraviolet light – for example, from sunbeds
- friction in your genital area – for example, from sex (lubricant may help) or tight clothing
Some triggers are unavoidable, including:
- being unwell
- having a period
- surgery on your genital area
- a weakened immune system – for example, from having chemotherapy for cancer
Genital herpes and HIV
Genital herpes can be a more serious condition for people with HIV.
If you have HIV and herpes, you’ll be referred to a genitourinary medicine (GUM) specialist.
Genital herpes and pregnancy
Women with herpes before pregnancy can usually expect to have a healthy baby and a vaginal delivery.
If you have genital herpes during pregnancy, there’s a risk your baby could develop a serious illness called neonatal herpes.
This can be fatal, but most babies recover with antiviral treatment.
The risk of your baby getting neonatal herpes is low if you have had genital herpes before.
It’s higher if you get genital herpes for the first time in pregnancy.
See your midwife or a GP if you think you have genital herpes in pregnancy.
Genital herpes treatment in pregnancy
You may be offered antiviral treatment:
- to treat outbreaks in pregnancy
- from 36 weeks to reduce the chance of an outbreak during birth
- from diagnosis until the birth if you first get herpes after 28 weeks of pregnancy
Many women with genital herpes have a vaginal delivery. You may be offered a caesarean, depending on your circumstances.