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How common is herpes?

Hundreds of gay and bisexual men were treated at UK clinics for genital or anal herpes each year. This doesn’t include men who get blisters from time to time but don’t go to clinics for treatment.

What causes herpes?

Herpes is caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus. Both types can cause blisters, usually on moist skin:

  • in or around the mouth (cold sores)
  • on or around the cock or inside the arse (genital or anal herpes).

During sex both types of the virus can be passed from one part of your body to someone else’s. For example, if someone with a cold sore sucks another man’s cock it can lead to herpes blisters on that cock.

It’s easy to be infected without knowing, as the immune system often stops the virus causing any problems.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

You may not notice symptoms of herpes until many months, or even years, after sex with an infected person. These symptoms can include:

  • blisters where it first got into your body (usually on your cock or mouth or in your throat or arse)
  • flu-like aches and pains
  • swollen glands.

Itching, tingling or redness in the affected area may warn you blisters are about to appear. Blisters hold an infectious clear fluid. The blister bursts, scabs over and heals in 10 to 14 days.

This might be the first and last time you get the blisters. But if they come back, it’ll be to the same part of your body as before. Usually they won’t be as bad as the first time, but they may still be painful.

How is herpes passed on?

The virus is passed on by skin contact with someone’s herpes sores through:

  • fucking or being fucked without condoms
  • sucking or being sucked
  • rimming or being rimmed
  • wanking, fisting or fingering someone with blisters on their cock or in their arse
  • contact with cold sores in or around the mouth (for example during kissing or oral sex).

The virus can be in the spit of someone with cold sores. It can sometimes be passed on through contact with skin that has no blisters.

How is herpes prevented?

These help to avoid the spread of herpes:

  • avoiding sex if you or your partner has a cold sore or herpes blister
  • avoiding sex if you feel a blister coming on, as the virus is in the skin just before the blisters appear
  • using condoms or latex gloves as a barrier against the part of the body with the blister
  • washing hands if blisters are touched and before handling contact lenses
  • if you have a cold sore, not using your spit as a lubricant during sex or when putting contact lenses in.

How is herpes treated?

The herpes virus stays in your body, but your immune system should keep it under control most of the time and clear up blisters if they happen.

If blisters appear then bathing in salt water eases the pain, as do pain-killing products such as Solarcaine or Xylocaine spray or cream. Special tablets and creams prescribed by a doctor can make the blisters go away more quickly: some drugs can even stop the blisters before they appear.

Creams for treating cold sores are no good for genital or anal herpes. Clinics can tell you which creams and lotions to use.

Certain things tend to bring on the sores or blisters, such as lack of sleep, stress, friction against the skin or sunbathing. If you avoid these it can cut down how often you get blisters.

People with HIV are sometimes given an anti-herpes drug to take regularly to stop blisters happening.

More information

You can get more information about herpes from these organisations and websites:

Herpes Viruses Association

Helpline: 0845 12 32 305 (4pm to 8pm weekdays)

New Zealand Herpes Foundation

Last review: 09/11/2018
Next review: 09/11/2021