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Genital herpes


Genital herpes is an infection caused by the Herpes simplex virus type 1 or type 2.

  • The type 1 virus can be transmitted to the genitals but mainly affects the mouth. It causes an infection commonly known as a "cold sore"
  • The type 2 virus mainly affects the genitals. It is very rarely transmitted to the mouth

People with genital herpes type 1 or type 2 remain infected for the rest of their lives.


Most people infected do not have symptoms. As such, a person can be infected without knowing it.

It is possible to have more than one genital herpes outbreak in a lifetime. The first outbreak may occur in as little as 6 days after infection with the virus. This outbreak can be major or go unnoticed. Some people will then experience several outbreaks yearly while others will only have a few during the course of their lives. The number and intensity of these outbreaks varies from one person to another. 

When symptoms appear during the first outbreak, they generally include the following:

  • A cluster of fluid-filled blisters may appear on:
    • The genitals (penis, scrotum, vulva, vagina, anus)
    • Near the genitals
    • On the thighs
    • On the buttocks
    These blisters then turn into small, painful and highly contagious lesions (ulcers)
  • Fever, soreness, headaches

If left untreated, the first outbreak of herpes lasts an average of 1 to 3 weeks.

The following symptoms may appear during subsequent outbreaks:

  • Before lesions appear:
    • Itching, burning or tingling
    • Muscle pain or headache
  • A cluster of fluid-filled blisters may appear on:
    • The genitals (penis, scrotum, vulva, vagina, anus)
    • Near the genitals
    • On the thighs
    • On the buttocks
    These blisters then turn into small, painful and highly contagious lesions (ulcers)

If left untreated, these outbreaks last about 10 days. They are more frequent in the first year after the infection and generally spaced out afterwards.  

When to consult

If you have symptoms, consult a health-care professional or call Info-Santé 811.


There is no effective treatment to heal genital herpes. Some medication in the form of pills can be taken orally. They can help:

  • Relieve symptoms
  • Reduce frequency and duration of herpes outbreaks
  • Reduce the risk of transmitting the infection

Inform partners

People with genital herpes should inform their current and future sexual partners. People infected should also tell their partners that they can transmit the virus even if they do not have symptoms.


Genital herpes increases the risk of getting or spreading HIV.

Infected new-borns can develop serious complications, such as lesions on the skin, mouth or eyes. They may also suffer brain damage.


Between outbreaks of genital herpes, an infected person can spread the virus even if he or she has no symptoms. Risk of transmission is higher when a person has lesions.

Sexual transmission can occur during:

  • Oral sex (contact of the mouth with the penis, vulva, vagina or anus)
  • Vaginal sex (penetration of the vagina with the penis)
  • Anal sex (penetration of the anus with the penis)
  • Genital contact between partners
  • Sharing of sex toys

Sexual transmission can occur in the absence of penetration, orgasm or ejaculation.

An infected mother can pass on herpes to her baby during pregnancy and at childbirth. For further information, read the Sexually Transmitted and Blood-borne Infections (STBBIs) and Pregnancy page.

Protection and prevention


There is no vaccine to protect against genital herpes.

Sexual protection

In order not to transmit herpes, an infected person must avoid having sex as soon as he or she has symptoms and until all lesions have gone.

If they cannot wait, the infected person and his or her partners can protect themselves by using a condom or a sheet of latex.

To lower the risk of catching or spreading herpes, use a condom:

  • During all contact between genital organs
  • During the entire course of oral, vaginal or anal sex
  • With each sexual encounter

The use of a sheet of latex to cover the vulva or anus during oral sex lowers the risk of spreading herpes. It helps prevent direct contact between the mouth and the genitals. A sheet of latex can be made by unrolling a condom, cutting off both ends and then cutting it lengthwise.

The use of a condom or sheet of latex does not completely protect against the spread of herpes. Herpes can be transmitted through infected areas that are not covered, such as the thighs, buttocks or scrotum.

Sex toys should not be shared. People who share sex toys can lower the risk of spreading herpes by covering them with a condom. They must change condoms after each partner.


Herpes is usually detected when there are symptoms. If you have symptoms, consult a health-care professional.

For more information, consult a health-care professional or call Info-Santé 811.

Last update: March 9, 2017


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