What is herpes?

There are 2 different strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). These are HSV1 and HSV2. Both strains can cause outbreaks of painful sores and blisters on the lips, mouth, genitals or anus.

Herpes is so common that around 80% of Australians will have herpes at some point in their lives. As it often occurs without symptoms, most people don’t know they have it but can still pass it on.

How herpes is transmitted

Herpes spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact from someone who has an infection. This happens during kissing, oral sex, penetrative sex, rimming or though small cuts in the skin on other parts of the body.

Herpes is more contagious when someone has symptoms, but it can still spread when a person isn’t showing any symptoms.

Symptoms of herpes

Herpes can live in the body but remain inactive and go unnoticed for years. When an episode of herpes does occur, it's usually in several stages over 7 to 10 days.

Common symptoms of herpes include:

  • a mild tingling or itching followed by small blisters that eventually scab over and cause irritation, pain and swelling
  • shallow ulcers, which form a couple of days after the blisters break
  • swollen and tender glands in the groin
  • pain when urinating (peeing) and pooing – depending where the outbreak is
  • flu-like symptoms during severe episodes.

Some people don't have any symptoms during their first herpes episode or any later episodes. Other people may have a small outbreak of blisters and other symptoms with their first episode, but then stay symptom-free.

If you do get symptoms, see a heath professional straight away so they can swab your blisters to confirm it's herpes.

Herpes simplex virus, or HSV, can manifest in the skin around the mouth or around the genitals. In both cases, herpes can present as a common cold sore or a cluster of small blisters, skin splits, or sores. However, in most cases, there are no symptoms at all, and people often do not know they have it. Herpes lives in the skin at the site of infection. It can be transmitted when no symptoms are felt or visible; however, the virus is most contagious when sores are present.

Genital herpes is spread with the infected skin on the mouth or genitals coming in contact with the intact skin of the penis, vagina, or anus. Herpes ulcers can form in or on the vagina, anus, penis, or scrotum, which can then cause pain when going to the toilet. In some cases, people can also have flu-like symptoms, tingling, itching, or painful blisters, or fever. People who develop genital herpes sores are also at a higher risk of contracting HIV.

Herpes cannot be cured, although there are antiviral medications available that can help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms or help prevent the outbreaks of sores. It is very difficult to avoid the herpes virus as it is very common, and so many people do not know they have it. You can avoid kissing or sex with someone who has active sores on the mouth, lips, genitals, or anal area. Using condoms can also reduce your likelihood of contracting herpes; however, they do not completely prevent it.

Preventing herpes

You can prevent getting or passing on herpes by not having any type of sexual contact if you or your sexual partner have symptoms or feel an episode coming on. This includes oral, vaginal, anal sex and also kissing.

It’s best not to have sex until one week after all sores and ulcers have completely healed. Using antiviral medicines also helps lower the risk of passing it on to someone else.

While using condoms with lube can reduce the chance of spreading herpes, they're not 100% effective because condoms don't cover all areas of the skin where the virus may be.

Testing for herpes

Getting tested for herpes involves taking a swab from any skin ulcers, blisters or cracks in the skin that look infected.

It's quick and easy, but you need to have symptoms to test for herpes. For this reason, and because herpes is so common, testing isn't part of regular sexual health checks.

We don't recommend getting a blood test for herpes if you don't have any symptoms except in special circumstances.

Treating herpes

Although there's no cure for herpes, antiviral medicines can help reduce pain and recovery time, and limit episodes. You can also manage herpes episodes by:

  • keeping the affected areas dry
  • wearing loose, non-restrictive underwear and clothing
  • using anaesthetic gels to help reduce pain
  • avoiding using soap on affected areas
  • bathing blisters and ulcers with salt water
  • applying ice packs to the affected area
  • urinating (peeing) while in the shower or while sitting in a warm bath if urinating is uncomfortable.

See your GP or health professional for more advice on herpes treatments.

Book an STI test

Getting tested for STIs is a normal part of a healthy sex life. STI tests are quick, easy, confidential and often free.

Find a GP or local health service

Last updated: April 2024