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The herpes simplex virus (HSV) can get into the body through tiny abrasions (cuts) in the genitals, mouth and lips or anus.
There are two types of herpes virus - HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause genital herpes but with different outcomes.
HSV-1 usually causes oral cold sores but can also cause genital herpes:
HSV-2 causes genital herpes:
Herpes is spread through skin to skin contact during vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can also be passed on during kissing, rimming and genital rubbing.
Herpes is most contagious when there are symptoms such as a cold sore or genital blister or sore, but can also be passed on when there are no symptoms or minor symptoms such as an itch or tingling.
Many people have no symptoms during the initial infection or recurrences.
However, for some people, initial infections may cause:
Most recurrences cause either no symptoms, or just a minor itch, irritation or tingling. For some people, recurrent infections may cause small localised blisters, ulcers or sores on the genitals, buttocks, thighs and anus.
A swab is taken from the ulcer or itchy spot. This test can also tell whether the virus is HSV-1 or HSV-2.
Some health services offer blood tests for HSV, however this method is not very reliable for people without symptoms.
There is no cure for herpes, but treatment can ease symptoms and prevent recurrences.
Antiviral medications are very effective and very safe, even when taken for long periods:
People with herpes often switch between episodic and suppressive therapies according to their needs and circumstances.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause significant infections in newborn babies. Neonatal herpes (herpes affecting the newborn) is an uncommon but serious infection, where the herpes virus is transmitted to the baby during birth.
The risk of transmission to a newborn is highest when a woman (or pregnant person) acquires an initial herpes infection in the last 3 months of pregnancy. In such cases, a caesarean delivery is recommended.
A woman (or pregnant person) with recurrent genital herpes has a low risk of transmitting the virus to their newborn. A caesarean delivery would be considered only if visible HSV ulcers are present at the time of the delivery.
During pregnancy, to reduce the risk of infection:
There is no cure for herpes, but treatment helps ease symptoms and prevent recurrences.
Herpes recurrences may be brought on by:
The best way to protect yourself is to avoid oral or genital contact with partners with active herpes symptoms, such as a cold sore or genital sore or blister.
Use condoms consistently as herpes can be present on the skin without causing any symptoms and be passed on by someone who has no sores present.
Use silicone-based lubricants to avoid skin trauma.
If you have herpes, talk to your doctor about taking suppressive therapy - this will reduce the risk of passing it on by 50%.
This fact sheet provides general sexual health information and is not intended to replace the need for a consultation with your doctor.
If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your doctor.
If you require urgent care, you should go to your nearest Emergency Department or call 000.