Sexual Health

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What is herpes?

Herpes is an infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). There are two types of HSV (Type 1 & Type 2). HSV can cause sores on the mouth (called cold sores) and the genitals (called genital herpes).

How do you get herpes?

You can get herpes:

  • by having skin to skin contact (including sexual), with someone who has herpes –with or without sores being present
  • by kissing someone who has a cold sore

If you are pregnant you may pass the virus to your baby during birth.

How can you tell if you have herpes?

You may have:

  • tingling, burning or itching on your skin before a blister or sore appears
  • painful blisters, open sore(s), irritation, small cracks or cuts on the skin in the genital area (your vagina, penis, anal or surrounding region).These usually heal within 2 weeks.
  • feeling of burning when you pee
  • flu-like symptoms—fever, headaches, body aches and pains

How do you get tested for herpes?

A health care provider can take a swab of any visible sores, blisters or cuts on the genitals.

How is herpes treated?

There is no cure for herpes but you can get medication to reduce the length and frequency of your herpes outbreak.

There is ongoing research for a possible vaccine.

If you have an outbreak:

  • abstain from sex
  • keep the area clean and dry
  • wear cotton underwear
  • wear loose-fitting clothes
  • put ice packs on the sores to reduce the pain
  • if it hurts when you pee, sit in a tub of warm water to pee or pour warm water over the area

Do you need follow-up?

If you have frequent outbreaks or you are feeling anxious or depressed, contact your health care provider.

Can herpes come back?

Yes. Once you have herpes, it is in your system for life. Most people get more than one outbreak.
You might have an outbreak if you:

  • are tired or under stress
  • are ill
  • are not eating well
  • spent too much time in the sun
  • have your period
  • are pregnant
  • have skin injury

How can you protect yourself and others?

  • Tell your sex partner(s) that you have herpes, so they are aware of their risk of getting herpes.
  • Always use condoms or a barrier for vaginal, anal and oral sex to reduce the chance of getting herpes. Remember condoms do not cover all the areas that can be infected by the herpes virus. Female condoms will cover more of the genital area.
  • Do not give oral sex when you have a cold sore.
  • Genital herpes increases your risk of getting and giving HIV
  • Get an STI check up to find out if you have any other STIs, especially if you’ve had a new sex partner, more than one sex partner, or suspect you have an infection. Ask your partner to get a check too.
  • Not all STIs can be routinely tested.
  • Consider getting immunized for STIs such as hepatitis B and Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Recognize that alcohol and drug use prior to sex can affect your decision to have safer sex.

Are there any special concerns about herpes?

  • There does not need to be obvious signs of infection for transmission to occur. Most often the virus can be given to another person when there are no symptoms, (called “asymptomatic shedding”)
  • The majority of people with herpes have not been diagnosed.
  • Outbreaks tend to decrease in severity and frequency over the years.
  • Herpes can cause you to feel anxious and worried so it is important to get accurate information and emotional support once diagnosed.
  • Herpes during pregnancy can lead to serious health problems for baby, especially if a pregnant woman gets a new herpes exposure late in the pregnancy.

Learn all you can about herpes.

Check out these resources:

  • The Truth About Herpes – 4th Edition S.L. Sacks, ‘97
  • Herpes Health website:

If you are pregnant, consult your health care provider about protecting your baby from the infection.


Canadian Guidelines on Sexually Transmitted Infections (2008)

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Page Last Modified: Wednesday, 12 March 2014.