How to prevent genital herpes outbreaks

Dr. Babak Ashrafi

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 03 May 2022

Genital herpes is a common type of sexually transmitted infection. While there is no cure for genital herpes, there are steps you can take to prevent further outbreaks of the virus. Over time, your body will clear the virus on its own. You can take antiviral medication during an outbreak to treat the symptoms of genital herpes.

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Key takeaways

  • Know what triggers can cause a herpes outbreak and avoid them if you can.

  • Taking care of your body will always help in the long term to protect yourself against further outbreaks.

  • If you know your sexual partner has herpes, wait until their sores or blisters have healed completely before you have sex.

  • You can prevent the spread of herpes by using condoms when having sex.

  • If you have a new sexual partner, it’s best for both of you to get tested for genital herpes.

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are 2 types of HSV, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types of the virus can cause genital herpes. You can also get cold sores on your mouth from HSV-1.

You can get genital herpes from any direct skin to skin contact with the blisters. This includes kissing and sharing sex toys. This can also happen if you and your partner’s genitals come into contact but you do not have penetrative sex. Your partner does not need to have the symptoms of genital herpes to pass the virus on to you.

While condoms can protect you from many STIs, it’s not always easy to protect yourself from genital herpes. Herpes can affect parts of your genital area that condoms are not able to reach, so you can easily pass it on to your sexual partner.

If you or your partner has genital herpes, it’s best to wait until the blisters and sores have healed before you have sex again.

What is a herpes outbreak?

A herpes outbreak happens when lesions called blisters or sores start to form on your genitals, bottom or mouth. If you have oral sex, you can also get oral herpes in the mouth. Your first outbreak of genital herpes will generally last longer with more severe symptoms, such as a fever or muscle aches.

Recurrent infections happen because the virus stays dormant in your body. Once triggered, the virus reactivates which leads to an outbreak. Triggers for recurrent infections can include being stressed, being on your period or feeling run down.

You might have an outbreak of herpes a long time after you’ve had unprotected sex. The virus can stay in your body and not cause symptoms straight away.

What happens during an outbreak?

During a herpes outbreak you may feel the following symptoms:

  • red bumps or blisters around the genital or anal area
  • flu-like symptoms like fatigue, fever, headache
  • difficulty in peeing or finding it painful to pee
  • vaginal discharge

Your first outbreak of herpes will last around 2 to 4 weeks. Recurrent outbreaks after this are usually much shorter with less severe symptoms.

The blisters that form may break and cause ulcers. These ulcers can be painful and will take a few weeks to heal completely.

If you are pregnant and have herpes, you should speak to your doctor or midwife immediately. The infection can potentially spread to your newborn baby during childbirth. Babies do not have a well developed immune system like adults, so neonatal herpes can be very serious for a baby. Depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy, your doctor might consider starting you on antiviral medication.

If you’re pregnant, avoid having sexual contact with partners you know to have genital herpes or any other STI.

Request fast, effective antibiotic medication to treat current or future outbreaks or suppress outbreaks if you get these regularly. Get started by completing a short online medical questionnaire so our doctors can check your symptoms and confirm that treatment is suitable. All prescribed medications are sent out in discreet, unmarked packaging.

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How to prevent herpes outbreaks

There are a few ways you can prevent herpes outbreaks. If you know your sexual partner has herpes, wait until their sores or blisters have healed completely before you have sex. You should use a condom to prevent passing on the virus.

If you have a new sexual partner, it’s best for both of you to get tested for genital herpes or any STIs before you have sex. Being open and honest about your STI status is important for any relationship so you can look out for each others’ health.

If you currently have a herpes outbreak, there are some steps you can take to avoid any recurrent outbreaks. Not everyone might have another outbreak after the first one, but it’s better to take steps to avoid an outbreak if you can.

Antiviral medication

You can treat the first outbreak and any recurrent outbreaks with antiviral medication.

Antiviral medication works by stopping HSV from replicating its DNA inside your own cells. The virus will eventually be cleared out from your body by your immune system.

If you have a health condition that weakens your immune system, such as HIV, speak to your doctor before taking any antiviral medication.

There are 3 types of antiviral treatment options: aciclovir, valaciclovir and famciclovir. Aciclovir is the most commonly prescribed antiviral medicine, but you might be given an alternative if it’s more suitable for you.

The dose of antiviral treatment depends on whether this is your first infection or a recurrent outbreak. For the first outbreak, you need to take medication for 5 to 10 days. The doses of antiviral medication are typically:

For recurrent infections, your dose will depend on how severe your symptoms are. Your doctor will prescribe the most suitable antiviral medication dose for you.

If you have very recurrent infections, such as more than 6 outbreaks a year, your doctor may recommend suppressive therapy. This is where you’ll take regular antiviral medication every day. You’ll need to increase the dose if you have an outbreak.

Understanding your triggers

Certain things might trigger another outbreak of genital herpes. You can keep a diary of events that happen before you have an outbreak to better understand what might be triggering the infection.

Some conditions that can be a trigger include:

  • stress
  • feeling run down or generally unwell
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • wearing tight clothing or tight underwear
  • sex
  • trauma to the area, such as surgery or an injury
  • sunbeds (due to the ultraviolet light)

These triggers might be different for you than they are for someone else. Recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes can last for around 10 days and will have less severe symptoms than the first outbreak.

Use lubricants during intercourse

Friction during sex can trigger genital herpes by irritating your skin. You can use lubricants to make having sex easier on your skin and protect it against friction.

Be aware that oil based lubricants can damage latex condoms. This can put you at risk of spreading herpes and other STIs. It’s best to use a water based lubricant, like K-Y Jelly, so you can lubricate and protect yourself from STIs.

Take care of your body

Taking care of your body will always help in the long term to protect yourself against further outbreaks. When you are feeling unwell or run down, your immune system is weakened. This allows HSV to reactivate while your immune system is fighting another illness.

You can support your immune system by:

  • eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • getting enough sleep every night
  • quitting smoking
  • reducing how much alcohol you drink
  • keeping up to date with vaccinations
  • exercising regularly

Taking a multivitamin can help boost your immune system by providing it with the necessary nutrients. You should also take care of your sexual health by getting regularly tested for STIs.

Watch out for early signs

If you notice these early signs of an outbreak, you can speak to your doctor for treatment.

The early signs of genital herpes include:

  • pain or itching on your genitals
  • tingling sensation in your legs, hips or bottom

These symptoms can occur days or hours before the blisters appear. Once the blisters appear, you should avoid having sex until they heal.

How to prevent spreading herpes

You can prevent the spread of herpes by using condoms when having sex, especially if you’re unsure of your partner’s STI status. You should use a condom whether you’re having vaginal, oral or anal sex.

If you already have herpes, avoid having sex until your blisters have healed completely. This can take a few weeks. If you have sex during a herpes outbreak, there’s a risk you’ll pass the infection on to your partner. Condoms cannot cover all the sores on your skin.

Make sure you wash your hands with soap and warm water whenever they come into contact with any blisters or sores. If you have been prescribed antiviral medication, take them as directed and complete the course of tablets.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion

Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.

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Last reviewed: 03 May 2022

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You can treat genital herpes two ways. One treatment option is for when you experience an individual outbreak (acute therapy) and the other is treatment for when you need to avoid regular outbreaks (suppressive). ZAVA offers both types of treatment through a discreet, convenient service.