Everything you need to know about herpes

Megan Alphabiolabs

By Megan Souness, Technical Manager for Health Testing and Covid‑19 at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 10/11/2022

This guide contains everything you need to know about herpes including what it is, the signs and symptoms of the infection, how it’s treated, and how often you should get an STI/STD test for herpes.

Table of contents
  • What is herpes?
  • How common is herpes?
  • What are the symptoms of herpes?
  • What does herpes look like?
  • Is herpes contagious?
  • How do you get herpes? How is it spread?
  • Can you get herpes from kissing?
  • Can you get herpes without having sex?
  • How long does herpes last?
  • How long can you have herpes without knowing?
  • What should you do if you have herpes?
  • What is the treatment for herpes?
  • Can you get an STI test for herpes?

What is herpes?

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) which is typically passed on through oral, vaginal, or anal sex.

There are two types of herpes infection, both of which are caused by the herpes simplex virus:

  • HSV-1 – which typically causes oral herpes (e.g. cold sores) but can also cause genital herpes
  • HSV-2 – the more common cause of genital herpes

There is currently no cure for herpes, with the infection remaining in a person’s body throughout their life once they have been infected.

Symptoms can clear up by themselves but may return during an outbreak or recurrence. However, certain antiviral medications are available to treat the symptoms and reduce the risk of the infection spreading to other people.

How common is herpes?

Herpes is one of the most common STIs in the UK.

According to figures from the UK Health Security Agency, first episodes of genital herpes – the first time an individual experiences the symptoms of herpes after becoming infected – accounted for around 7 per cent (21,000 cases) of all STIs diagnosed by sexual health services in England in 2021.

There was also a 5.5 per cent increase in the diagnosis of first episode genital herpes from 2020 to 2021.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

Some people infected with the herpes simplex virus may experience symptoms within 2-14 days of coming into contact with the virus, while others may not experience any symptoms when they are first infected.

However, symptoms can continue to appear for months and years afterwards.

Symptoms of herpes, which can appear on the genitals and/or other parts of the body, include:

  • Pain or itching
  • Small red bumps or white blisters
  • Ulcers
  • Scabs

A person infected with herpes may also experience pain or discomfort while urinating.

If left undiagnosed or untreated, herpes can cause further health complications including:

  • Higher risk of contracting HIV or transmitting other STIs, including HIV
  • Bladder problems
  • Rectal inflammation

Pregnant women who are infected with HSV-2 (genital herpes) may also be at risk of their baby developing neonatal herpes, which can potentially develop into a life-threatening condition. 

What does herpes look like?

Genital herpes

Visible signs of genital herpes, which can be caused by the herpes simplex virus Type-1 (HSV-1) or Type-2 (HSV-2), include:

  • Sores on or around the external part of the genitals (vulva, labia, penis) that initially look like small white or red pimples before developing into larger, fluid-filled red, white, or yellow sores
  • Sores inside the vagina that may be difficult to see
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin

Oral herpes

A person infected with oral herpes (cold sores), which is typically caused by herpes simplex virus Type-1 (HSV-1), will usually experience blisters that appear on the mouth or lips, but can also appear elsewhere on the face including on the nose, tongue, or chin.

Initially, the sores resemble small pimples, which then develop into red, yellow, or white pus-filled blisters.

Rectal herpes

A person with a herpes infection around the rectum may develop blisters or sores on the buttocks or around the anus or red, open wounds on or around the anus.

They may also develop swollen lymph nodes in the groin.

Ocular (eye) herpes

A person with a herpes infection in the eye may experience pain, sensitivity to light and discharge from the eye.

Is herpes contagious?

Herpes is very contagious.

Both HSV-1 (the typical cause of oral herpes) and HSV-2 (the more common cause of genital herpes) are most contagious when sores or lesions are present.

However, the virus can also be passed on by people with no visible symptoms.

How do you get herpes? How is it spread?                 

Herpes is spread via skin-to-skin contact, often through open sores, or by sharing bodily fluids, and is most commonly passed on during sexual contact.

You can get genital herpes:

  • By having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person, especially if unprotected
  • If a cold sore touches your genitals
  • By sharing sex toys with a person who has herpes

The virus is most contagious when a person has an active sore or lesion, but can also be passed on by an infected person who has no visible sores or blisters.

Cold sores (oral herpes), which are typically caused by herpes simplex virus Type-1 (HSV-1) are contagious while the person has an active sore or lesion.

Can you get herpes from kissing?

Herpes is commonly spread by skin-to-skin contact, meaning that it’s entirely possible to get herpes by kissing someone who has the virus.

Herpes is most contagious when a person has an active sore or lesion. For example, it is possible to get oral herpes by kissing a person with a cold sore.

Can you get herpes without having sex?

Herpes is spread via skin-to-skin contact, meaning it is possible to get herpes without having sex.

You can become infected with herpes by touching or kissing a person with an active herpes infection e.g. open sores/lesions.

The virus can also be passed on by mothers to their children during childbirth.

How long does herpes last?

Although most people infected with the herpes simplex virus will not experience any symptoms when they are first infected, symptoms can continue to appear for months and years after a person is first infected.

The first outbreak or episode of genital herpes typically lasts for 2-4 weeks, while recurrent future outbreaks can be shorter.

Cold sores (oral herpes) typically last between 7-10 days.

There is currently no cure for herpes, with the infection remaining in a person’s body throughout their life once they have been infected.

However, certain antiviral medications such as tablets and creams can be used to treat the symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other people.

For more information and guidance, visit https://www.sexwise.org.uk/stis/genital-herpes.

How long can you have herpes without knowing?

Every sexually transmitted infection (STI) has a different incubation period: the amount of time it takes from when a person is first infected to when they begin to show or experience symptoms.

The incubation period for herpes is 3-6 days, but it can take up to 14 days (2 weeks) for symptoms to appear. In some cases, symptoms may not appear for months or years.

Symptoms to look out for include small sores, ulcers and/or wart-like growths on the genitals and/or other parts of the body.

What should you do if you have herpes?

If you have had an STI test, such as those offered by AlphaBiolabs, and your results show that a herpes infection has been detected, you MUST contact your GP or visit your local sexual health clinic for further guidance and treatment options as soon as possible.

You should also abstain from sexual contact to avoid passing the infection on to other people, and contact any sexual partners as soon as possible to inform them of the result.

What is the treatment for herpes?

There is currently no cure for herpes, with the virus remaining in a person’s body for the rest of their life once they are infected.

However, certain antiviral medications such as tablets and creams are available to treat the symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other people

If you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate you have herpes, it can be helpful to get an STI test to either confirm or rule out the possibility of having the virus.

If you have received your STI test results and a herpes infection has been detected, your GP or local sexual health clinic will be able to provide further guidance and suitable treatment options.

Can you get an STI test for herpes?

It’s never been easier to order an STI test for herpes.

Regular STI testing is important, especially if you engage in unprotected sex (or have in the past), or you and/or your partner have multiple sexual partners.

If you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate you have herpes, it is important to get a herpes test immediately, as this is the most reliable way to find out whether you have contracted the virus.

An AlphaBiolabs herpes test simply requires a swab to be rubbed gently and painlessly over a visible lesion, sore or ulcer to collect a sample of fluid and/or skin from the affected area.

If you receive your results and a herpes infection has been detected, you must contact your GP or visit your local sexual health clinic for further guidance and treatment options as soon as possible.

Order an STI test

At-home STI testing you can trust, from just £28.

Megan Souness, AlphaBiolabs

Megan Souness

Technical Manager for Health Testing and Covid‑19 at AlphaBiolabs

Megan joined AlphaBiolabs in 2020 and holds the role of Technical Manager, playing a fundamental part in the research and development of new health testing services at AlphaBiolabs.

In addition to developing new services, Megan oversees the day-to-day processes in the Health Laboratory, managing the in-house validation and training of all new workflows, and ensuring the lab operates to the highest possible quality technical standards.

During her time at AlphaBiolabs, Megan has played a key role in the development and launch of the company’s health testing services, including the introduction of a full suite of at-home STI tests, and the progression of the laboratory to ISO 15189 standards.

Megan holds a BSc in Biochemistry, an MSc in Biological Sciences, and is a member of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH).

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