What Does Herpes Look Like?

Dr Kathryn Basford

Medically reviewed by

Dr Kathryn Basford

Last reviewed: 03 Dec 2021

Genital herpes usually causes small, fluid filled blisters around your vagina or penis. At first you might notice some itching or tingling of the skin. You may also see some discharge from the vagina or penis. A doctor will usually be able to tell from looking at the area if it is genital herpes and prescribe treatment, but it’s best to also get a swab test to be sure.


Genital herpes is a type of STI (sexually transmitted infection). Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are 2 types of HSV, called HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both of these viruses can cause genital herpes. Getting cold sores on your mouth is caused by HSV-1.

What do herpes sores look like?

Herpes sores look like small blisters and are found on your genitals (vagina or penis), around your bottom or your thighs. These fluid-filled blisters can be red or painful and can often burst.

Genital herpes in women

If you are a woman with genital herpes you may find that you also have:

  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • pain when you urinate
  • pain inside the vagina

Your menstrual cycle can be a trigger for recurrent herpes as your hormones change within the cycle. However, herpes will not affect your period.

Herpes can occur during pregnancy. In most cases, your baby will be completely healthy but there is a small risk of neonatal herpes. If you have genital herpes for the first time or a recurrence of herpes while you’re pregnant, speak to your midwife or GP immediately.

Genital herpes in men

Herpes can look different if you are a man. You might experience pain on the head of your penis, or find it difficult or painful to pee. The lymph nodes (small glands that are part of your immune system) near your groin can become swollen.

What are the early signs of genital herpes?

The early signs of genital herpes are not always easy to spot.

Some early signs you can look out for are:

  • tingling sensation around your genitals or bottom
  • feeling itchy around the genitals
  • in women, vaginal discharge that is unusual for you

If you think you have genital herpes, you should get tested. Find your nearest sexual health clinic or request a genital herpes test kit from Asda Online Doctor.

How long does a herpes outbreak last?

A herpes outbreak can last for around 1 or 2 weeks. There is no cure for herpes and you may get recurrent infections. Recurrent infections can have less severe symptoms and last for a shorter time.

You can take medicines to speed up recovery from a herpes outbreak. These medicines will not remove the herpes virus from your body, but they can help you manage the symptoms and make you feel better.

Are there any other symptoms of genital herpes?

There are a few other symptoms you might get with genital herpes. You might also have:

  • a fever or high temperature
  • a headache
  • flu-like symptoms, such as aching muscles or feeling tired
  • backache

How is herpes treated?

While there is no cure for herpes, you can treat the symptoms with medication so that the infection clears up quickly.

Antiviral medications, such as aciclovir, valaciclovir or famciclovir, directly treat the infection. They do this by preventing the virus from reproducing and spreading. These drugs are designed to specifically attack the virus without harming your own cells.

Antiviral treatment is usually given for a short course. Aciclovir is taken 3 times a day for 5 days, whereas valaciclovir treatment is taken 2 times a day for 5 days. Both drugs can be used for a first time treatment or for repeated outbreaks (recurrent infections). Famciclovir is another antiviral treatment that can be used to treat herpes, it is taken as a 1 day course.

You can get these treatments at Asda Online Doctor. All you need to do is fill out a short questionnaire which our doctors will review. We can then deliver the treatment to your chosen address or you can collect it at an Asda Pharmacy.

How to avoid herpes

The best way to avoid getting herpes is to use condoms when having sex. However, since herpes is passed on from contact with the skin, condoms won’t protect from passing on the infection if they don’t cover the affected area. Other methods of contraception, such as birth control pills, will not prevent you from getting STIs such as herpes.

You should try to avoid having sex if you or your partner has a current outbreak of herpes, or there are early signs of infection. Wait for the infection to clear completely before you start having sex again.

A cold sore on your mouth can also spread the infection to others. Avoid kissing or any direct contact between the infected area and your partner.

Certain triggers can cause genital herpes to come back. Herpes can be triggered by:

  • stress
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • wearing tight clothing
  • if you are a woman, your menstrual cycle (particularly around your period)
  • having a weakened immune system (such as after cancer treatment)

Ultraviolet light from sunbeds or sunbathing can also trigger genital herpes, so try to wear sun protection when you go out to avoid having an outbreak.

If you have recurrent herpes, you might find it helps to keep a record of what you think might trigger the infection so you can try to avoid these triggers.

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: 03 Dec 2021

Last reviewed: 03 Dec 2021

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