Understanding Herpes in Women

Signs, diagnoses, treatments and more

Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2019

Women looking up herpes in women on her smartphone

Key takeaways

  • Most herpes infections don't have visible symptoms, for men or women

  • If you do get symptoms, there are some that are more common in women

  • The best way for a women to know if they have herpes is a doctor's assessment

  • Different women have different risks of getting herpes

  • Herpes treatment is the same for women and men

  • Herpes shouldn't affect your contraception or periods, but can make getting pregnant harder

Contents of this article

What are the signs of herpes in women?

Most people who have the herpes virus in their body don’t actually show any signs – some researchers have estimated that around 9 in 10 people worldwide carry the herpes virus, so it’s very common.

If you think you are showing signs – these are the usual sequence of events to look out for:

  • You feel unwell for a few days, as if you have a cold – you may also notice some non-specific symptoms such as pain, tingling, itching, or burning around your genitals
  • After this episode, small, red blisters appear in or around the outside of your genitals and anus – this stage lasts for a few weeks
  • The blisters eventually burst to form shallow sores
  • During this whole process, you may notice pain when you pass urine
  • Oral herpes – a strain of the herpes virus can cause ulcers in and around the mouth (cold sores) as well as blistering around the genitals

Symptoms that are more common in women than men – some of these signs are more common in women compared to men. For example, women are more likely to get blisters on the inside of the genitals and anus. Women are also more likely to experience pain when peeing, and an abnormal vaginal discharge.

Symptoms a second time around – once a person has had their first breakout of herpes, they may experience further breakouts. These tend to be less severe and last for a shorter time than the very first breakout.

Sometimes, a breakout of herpes can mimic other conditions – some examples of these are:

  • Folliculitis – inflammation and redness of the hair follicle
  • Aphthous stomatitis – blister-like lesions that form inside the mouth

These conditions can cause blisters that look very similar to herpes. However, it’s very unusual to experience the other symptoms such as feeling unwell in the days leading up to the breakout and pain when passing urine.

How can women get a herpes diagnosis?

We offer a photo assessment service – to get a herpes diagnosis, you can follow these simple steps:

  • Complete a short questionnaire which should take no longer than a minute
  • Upload two good quality photos of the affected area
  • One of our doctors will give you a diagnosis and advice on the treatment options
  • If you are eligible, one of our doctors can also send you treatment by post

If you would prefer to see a doctor face-to-face – your usual GP surgery can make the diagnosis:

  • Make an appointment to see your GP
  • Before your consultation, it might be helpful to think about questions such as when the symptoms started, whether you have noticed any changes to the lesions, and other symptoms you may think are related
  • In your consultation, your doctor will ask some questions to do with the breakout and they may also examine you. They may use a swab test to get a sample from one of the sores, this can be sent to the lab to confirm the diagnosis
  • A diagnosis is usually made by putting together all of the information that you tell the doctor as well as from examining what the lesions look like. The doctor will then advise you on the treatment options
  • If you need treatment, your doctor will issue a prescription
  • Take your prescription to any pharmacist. If they have it in stock, you can get your treatment in as little as a few minutes. If not, you can get your treatment the next day

Is the risk of herpes the same for women?

No, it's higher for women than men – unfortunately in the UK the number of new cases of herpes in women is higher than in men. In 2017, there were nearly twice as many new cases in women than in men.

The people who are most at risk of contracting herpes are those who:

  • Have had sexual contact with someone who is infected with herpes
  • Started being sexually active at a young age
  • Have had multiple sexual partners
  • Have been diagnosed with another sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the past
  • Have a condition that weakens the immune system, such as HIV
  • Do not use condoms correctly when having sex

Reducing your risk – you can reduce your risk of contracting herpes by using a condom correctly when you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex with another person.

Is herpes treatment the same for women?

There’s no difference in the treatment of herpes for men and women – herpes breakouts are treated with antiviral medicines. Also, women and men respond in the same way to herpes treatment. People who receive antiviral medicines should find that their symptoms resolve more quickly and do not become as severe. Antiviral herpes treatment includes:

To get herpes treatment – you can either use our online consultation service or make an appointment with your GP or a sexual health clinic. Once a diagnosis of herpes is made, you can receive your supply of antiviral medications either through our online consultation service or at a pharmacy once a doctor writes you a prescription.

How does herpes affect things like birth control?

Herpes shouldn’t affect how your birth control works. However, we recommend that you don’t have sex if you have an active herpes outbreak, even if you use a condom. This is because herpes is the most contagious when genital sores are present.

Hormonal birth control may make you more infectious – however, some research has found that people who use hormonal forms of contraception are more likely to have shedding of the herpes virus. Shedding is when the herpes virus is present on the skin, but not causing any symptoms. This means you may be more likely to pass on the virus to a partner. We do not recommend that you stop hormonal contraception because of the link to herpes, but we do recommend that you use a condom to help prevent catching or passing on the herpes virus.

Herpes also doesn’t cause any changes to your periods – although, some women may find that they are more prone to an outbreak a week or so before your cycle begins. Although herpes does not directly affect your fertility, it can in some cases make conceiving more difficult. For example, we recommend that partners abstain from sex if one of them is having an active outbreak. So if you’re trying to conceive, it may take a longer period of time. It’s also important that herpes infections are closely monitored and managed if you do become pregnant, because of the possible risks to the baby.


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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Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2019

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