How long does a herpes outbreak last?

Dr Kathryn Basford

Medically reviewed by

Dr Kathryn Basford

How long a genital herpes outbreak last varies between people and between outbreaks. Typically, a genital herpes outbreak may last a couple of weeks. Sometimes though, a genital herpes outbreak may last just a few days; other times it may last more than a few weeks.

Let’s look at what causes genital herpes and what affects how long a genital herpes outbreak lasts.


What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. The herpes virus causes small blisters (herpes sores) to appear. After a few days, these blisters burst and turn into ulcers which can be red and painful. Over time, the ulcers crust over and eventually disappear.

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI, also known as a sexually transmitted disease or STD). It’s passed on when there is skin to skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex. You can pass genital herpes on to a partner even if you do not have symptoms. You can reduce the chance of catching or passing on genital herpes by using a condom. Genital herpes is more likely to be passed on if you are experiencing an outbreak. To reduce the risk of spread, you should avoid having sex if you or your partner have visible blisters or sores.

Where symptoms develop depends on where the herpes virus has entered the body. Genital herpes can develop in the vagina, on the penis or in the anus. If the herpes virus enters the mouth, it can cause oral herpes. In the mouth, herpes ulcers are called cold sores.

There are 2 types of Herpes simplex virus: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 can cause oral herpes (cold sores) or genital herpes. HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes.

The first time you are infected with genital herpes, you may feel unwell with a fever and flu-like symptoms. This is then followed by blisters that develop in the genital area. Often though, genital herpes does not cause any symptoms and you may not even know you have the infection.

After the first infection, the virus lies dormant in the affected area. Later on, the virus can be reactivated, leading to a herpes outbreak. You may have several genital herpes outbreaks after a first infection. Or, you may have no further symptoms or genital herpes outbreaks after the first infection.

How long does a herpes outbreak last?

A first outbreak of genital herpes can last about 2 weeks. Over time, herpes outbreaks usually happen less often, are shorter and are less severe. After the first herpes outbreak, subsequent herpes outbreaks might last between 7 and 10 days.

The longest a herpes outbreak can last is usually 2 to 4 weeks. Most herpes outbreaks will be shorter than this.

First signs and symptoms

The first signs and symptoms of a genital herpes outbreak are usually a tingling or itching feeling in the affected area. You may also notice some pain, discomfort or a burning feeling.

After a couple of days, you may start to notice some small blisters appearing. There may be just one or you may have several. Over time, you may be able to see the blisters filling with fluid. The blisters will eventually burst, leading to ulcers forming. As the ulcers form, you may find it painful whilst peeing (urinating).

Timeline of herpes outbreak

The timeline of a herpes outbreak can typically have a timeline like this:

  • days 1 to 2: tingling feeling starts in the affected area
  • days 3 to5: blisters appear and start to fill with fluid (pus)
  • days 5 to 7: blisters start to burst, releasing fluid and turning into ulcers
  • days 7 to 14: blisters scab over and start to heal
  • day 14: outbreak usually resolved

After a first outbreak of genital herpes, you may find the length of later outbreaks gets shorter over time.

What can trigger a herpes outbreak?

There are several different factors that are thought to trigger a herpes outbreak. These include:

  • having a cold or feeling unwell
  • having a weakened immune system
  • sunlight or using a sunbed
  • having sex
  • hormonal changes including having a period
  • stress
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • wearing tight clothing

If you have recurrent genital herpes outbreaks, you may start to recognise things that might trigger an outbreak. Often though, there is no obvious trigger for a genital herpes outbreak.

Herpes outbreak treatment options

If you are experiencing a herpes outbreak, there are herpes treatment options available. You can treat a genital herpes outbreak with 3 different antiviral medications available from Asda Online Doctor:

If taken early during an outbreak of genital herpes (in the first 1 or 2 days), antiviral medicines can shorten the duration of the outbreak by 1 or 2 days. Taking antiviral medicines to treat a genital herpes outbreak can also reduce the severity of symptoms.

If you have had multiple herpes outbreaks (6 or more during a year), you may be able to take antiviral medication to try and reduce the number of outbreaks. You can speak to your doctor for advice on whether taking antiviral medication to prevent genital herpes outbreaks is suitable for you.­­­

You can take paracetamol to relieve any pain you feel during a genital herpes outbreak. You can also use an anaesthetic gel (5% lidocaine) to relieve pain during a genital herpes outbreak. Apply the 5% lidocaine gel on affected areas before peeing (urinating).

There are other simple health care things you can try to help relieve the symptoms of a genital herpes outbreak:

  • apply vaseline gently to any ulcers to prevent pain when you pee
  • wash any blisters gently with salty water
  • avoid scented bubble baths or soaps
  • try peeing under running water to soothe pain
  • avoid sex until all ulcers have healed over completely
  • hold an ice pack wrapped in a cloth over painful areas
  • drink plenty of water
Medically reviewed by:
Dr Kathryn Basford

Dr Kathryn Basford is a qualified GP who works as a GP in London, as well as with ZAVA. She graduated from the University of Manchester and completed her GP training through Whipps Cross Hospital in London.

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Article created: 26 Apr 2022

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