The Effects of Herpes on the Penis

Dr Kathryn Basford

Medically reviewed by

Dr Kathryn Basford

Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2019

How does a herpes infection affect male genitals?

Man looking up the effect on herpes on the penis on his smartphone

Key takeaways

  • Blisters are the main symptom of a herpes outbreak on the penis

  • A doctor can assess you for herpes symptoms on your penis

  • Although herpes blisters can be painful, they shouldn't do serious damage to your penis

  • Apart from repeat outbreaks, herpes shouldn't have long-term effects on your penis health or fertility

What does herpes on the penis look like?

Blisters are the most visible sign of herpes on the penis – they will appear in mostly on the penis and around the anus. However, the virus can also affect the urethra making urination painful. The number of blisters that form will differ between individuals. Some men will only have one or two while others may have many – all of which can be very painful. Just like normal blisters, herpes blisters will fill with liquid and eventually burst. Once burst, the blisters will leave behind open wounds which can be sore. These wounds will turn to scabs and begin to heal.

Other symptoms you may notice with genital herpes are:

  • itching, burning or tingling of the skin (this usually happens before the blisters appear
  • fever
  • flu-like symptoms like muscle aches and pains
  • feeling sick (nausea)

Where do genital herpes symptoms come from? – Genital herpes is caused by a virus called Herpes Simplex Virus. There are 2 types of this virus - HSV-1 and HSV-2. You can catch herpes from having sexual contact with anyone who has the herpes virus. You’re more likely to catch the virus from someone who has visible sores, but it’s possible to get it even if that person doesn’t have an outbreak at the time. A herpes episode which affects the penis can last up to 3 weeks. Usually, the first outbreak will cause the most severe symptoms. Recurrent bouts may only last a few days.

How can you tell if you have herpes on your penis?

Checking against pictures online – although many people now check their symptoms online by comparing pictures, the only way to get a proper diagnosis is to speak to a health professional. Not all genital sores or blisters are caused by herpes, so you may end up treating your symptoms with the wrong medication which could even make them worse.

Getting a diagnosis online – if you would prefer not to visit your GP, you can use our online doctor service for a photo assessment, or order a test kit for genital herpes. This is a swab test that you use on any open sores or blisters and which can test for the herpes virus. Alternatively, if you’ve already been diagnosed with genital herpes, you can purchase antiviral medication from us to treat the symptoms.

Getting checked in person – if you notice any abnormalities on your genitalia you should visit your GP or local sexual health clinic. They will be able to help to confirm a diagnosis as well as find the cause of your symptoms, enabling you to get the correct treatment.

It is possible to mistake the presence of genital herpes with genital warts – genital warts are growths on/around the genitalia and unlike genital herpes, they are painless. However, a health professional will be able to distinguish between both and give you a correct diagnosis. Psoriasis, a skin condition, can also cause itching or burning sensations so may be mistaken for genital herpes in the early stages.

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What does a herpes infection do to the penis?

Usually, genital herpes causes painful sores or blisters on the head or shaft of the penis.

Antiviral herpes treatments can help to clear up the symptoms faster. However, the virus stays in the body, which means that although the symptoms can disappear after an outbreak there is the possibility that they will come back later.

Your penis can be infectious without you knowing – infection with herpes occurs when there is genital to genital or skin to skin contact. Therefore, it can be spread through skin touching skin and there doesn’t need to be any visible signs of the infection to be present.

Can herpes affect the penis long-term?

Normally it shouldn't cause long-term problems – for most men who are otherwise healthy, the infection shouldn’t cause any long-term medical complications.

But, recurrent outbreaks are common, once the infection has been contracted. There are treatments available to reduce the number, frequency, and severity of the outbreaks, but there’s no definitive cure. If you catch herpes it will be a lifelong condition.

Increased risk of getting HIV – if you develop genital herpes sores, you may be at an increased risk of contracting HIV, too. This is because the lesions (wounds) caused by the herpes virus can leave behind the perfect environment for HIV to spread. So it’s important that you take care to try to lower the the risk of contracting or spreading the infection.

Effect on your fertility – the herpes infection doesn’t usually cause infertility. There is some research, though, which suggests that the herpes infection may reduce your sperm count. This can make pregnancy more difficult.

As well as this, recurrent outbreaks of herpes can make it more difficult to have sexual activity, because of the pain and active infection. If you’re planning to have children, you might want to take this into consideration.

How you protect your penis from herpes?

Condoms and hygiene – the best way to prevent genital herpes is to use condoms whenever you have sex. You should also avoid touching an infected area. If you do touch an infected blister or sore, on your own body or on someone else’s, you should wash your hands immediately with warm, soapy water. The virus is most contagious when there are visible signs, but it’s still possible to catch it even when there aren’t.

Some simple tips for avoiding infection include:

  • using a condom every time you have sex including vaginal, anal and oral
  • avoiding vaginal, anal or oral sex if your partner has blisters or sores
  • avoiding vaginal, anal or oral sex if your partner has a tingling, itching, or burning sensation around an infected area
  • avoiding sharing sex toys

If you currently have an outbreak – there are things you can do to help manage your symptoms, including:

  • avoiding tight clothing
  • avoiding drinking excess alcohol
  • avoiding UV light – sunbeds etc

If you have herpes but aren't currently having an oubreak – you can do things to help avoid outbreaks and symptoms. There are 'triggers' which can lead to a herpes outbreak and so avoiding them can reduce the chances of one occurring. There are some triggers which cannot be prevented, but if you are aware of them you may be able to prepare yourself for a potential outbreak. They include:

  • being unwell
  • having your period if you’re female
  • having a weakened immune system
  • surgery on your genitals

You can help to keep your penis healthy by:

  • always wearing a condom when you have sex
  • washing after you have sex
  • washing after you urinate
  • washing your hands after you touch your own genitals or somebody else’s
  • drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated
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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Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2019

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