What is herpes
Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the virus Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). It can occur on the skin around or sometimes inside the penis or external genitals, vagina or internal genitals, anus, and mouth. For many people, herpes is a skin condition that comes and goes without causing problems.
Herpes can be managed. It is a very common STI in British Columbia.
There are two types of herpes simplex virus: herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2).
HSV-1 is commonly found around the mouth and is often called “cold sores”. It can be passed orally by kissing and it can be passed to the genitals through oral sex. HSV-2 is commonly found in the genital area and is passed through vaginal and anal sex, but it can also be passed to the mouth through oral sex. It is uncommon for HSV-2 to be found on the lips, but it is becoming more common to find HSV-1 in the genital area. Both types are sometimes passed to other areas of the body through skin-to-skin contact.
After the first outbreak, herpes stays in the body and becomes inactive. The virus may become active from time-to-time. When this happens, symptoms usually show up in the same general area as the first time. There is no way of knowing if, or how often, a person will have future outbreaks. For most people, outbreaks happen less often over time.
Herpes is passed through vaginal, oral, and anal sexual contact. Herpes can be passed to others even if you don’t have symptoms. Once you have one type of HSV, it is unusual to get the same type on another area of your body. The exception is within the first few months after you are exposed to HSV, while your body is building up antibodies to the virus.
If you have herpes, it is common to not notice any symptoms. If you do get symptoms, they will most likely show up between 2 to 21 days after sexual contact. Early symptoms may include:
- Itching, burning, or tingling at the site where blisters or sores
- Painful red sores or tiny blisters
- Sometimes swollen glands
- Fever Body aches
Tests and Diagnosis
Most testing for herpes is done by an exam and a swab taken from a blister. Results are the most accurate if you see a health care provider as soon as a sore develops. They will look at the sore to determine what it is. If possible, they will take a swab.
There is a blood test for herpes but it is not routinely done. The patient guide at the bottom of this page has more information on blood testing for herpes.
It is best to get tested for herpes when you have symptoms.
Window Period (how long you should wait to get tested): Most swab tests are accurate once you have symptoms. Most blood test results are accurate 12 to 16 weeks after you come in contact with herpes. In British Columbia, most test results should be ready in 10 days.
You can choose if you want to treat herpes. Symptoms will go away without treatment, though they may go away sooner with treatment. To help with the symptoms of a genital outbreak, you can try the following:
- wear loose-fitting clothing and cotton underwear
- bathe in warm water to soothe sores
- keep the area dry
- apply an ice pack, wrapped in a clean covering, to sores
- take acetaminophen or ibuprofen (over-the-counter pain medication) if needed
- drink plenty of fluids to keep urine diluted (to lower pain when urinating)
- if urinating is painful, try urinating in a warm shower or bath, or try pouring warm water over the genitals when urinating
- only use medications, ointments or creams as directed by your health care provider
It is your choice if you talk to your current sexual partners about herpes. Telling your partners lets them make informed choices, but you may not want to or you may not feel safe telling your partners. You need to make the decision that is best for you.
Current partners can check themselves regularly for herpes. If they notice any symptoms, they can see their health care provider for testing. Once your outbreak is over, it is less likely that you can pass herpes to sexual partners.
Herpes does not usually cause any other health problems. Serious complications, although extremely rare, may include:
- higher chance of getting and passing HIV
- ongoing, frequent and painful outbreaks
- eye herpes
- brain infection and inflammation (encephalitis or meningitis)
Pregnancy: Tell your health care provider if you are pregnant and have herpes. You can pass herpes to your child during birth.
To lower the chances of passing or getting herpes:
- you can still be sexual when you have an outbreak, but take care to avoid skin-to-skin contact in the area where you have sores (for example, do not give oral sex when you have a sore on your mouth)
- consider antiviral medication if you have frequent outbreaks
It is a good idea to be tested regularly for STIs, especially if you have new sexual partners or open relationships. Talking with partners about safer sex makes sure everyone knows what to expect. Condoms are great if they work for you – the correct use of condoms might reduce your chance of getting and passing herpes (depending where outbreaks are located).
Herpes: A Patient’s Guide
This 25-page colour booklet talks about herpes symptoms, transmission, testing and treatment.
Herpes: Patient Handout
This 4-page colour booklet summarizes information on herpes symptoms, transmission, testing, and treatment.
Herpes information sheet
A PDF version of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) topic page on SmartSexResource.