Dr Clare Morrison

Article by Dr Clare Morrison

Side effects of herpes

Herpes is one of the most common diseases in the world – over 4 billion people under the age of 50 live with one form or another of the virus. The Herpes Simplex Virus type 2 (HSV-2) – the sexually transmitted kind, known as Genital Herpes – affects over 10% of people in the 15-49 years age range. Although the side effects of herpes are not especially serious, it can be an embarrassing illness and cause discomfort.

Let’s look in more detail at the side effects of herpes, how you can manage the condition and how it might affect your lifestyle.

What is herpes?

Herpes is an infection transmitted through skin contact with an infected person (you can’t get it from a toilet seat or other surfaces). Genital herpes (HSV-2) is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It affects men and women.

After an initial outbreak, herpes will stay in your system for the rest of your life, and carriers will have occasional outbreaks of tingling, cold sores and blisters around the mouth, genitals, near the eyes and other sensitive areas. It may be uncomfortable to pee during an outbreak. Over time, the outbreaks usually become less frequent and severe.

Symptoms: spot the herpes side effects

Common symptoms and side effects of herpes are described below. While HSV-1 and HSV-2 are slightly different viruses, they have very similar symptoms and both can result in tingling, blisters and sores on your face, genitals and other sensitive areas (although they can appear anywhere on the body).

The first outbreak of herpes is normally the most severe and often happens within 2-12 days of becoming infected. That said, you can carry the virus for years without experiencing any herpes side effects.

  • Tingling, burning and itching

Before the blisters themselves appear, you may notice a tingling or burning sensation around the mouth, your genitals, anus or eyes.

  • Cold sores

You will notice one or more painful sores or blisters which may break open, release fluid and a crust will appear. The sores tend to last between one and two weeks.

If you have HSV-1, the cold sores will normally appear on your lips or around the mouth, and can also occur inside the mouth and around your eyes.

If you have HSV-2, you will notice the cold sores on the penis, around or inside your vagina and on the buttocks or anus.

  • Mild flu-like symptoms

A common herpes side effect is to feel some flu-like symptoms, such as aching muscles, fever and swollen glands.

  • Trouble urinating

You might also notice a burning sensation when you go to pee – this is most common among women with HSV-2.

How will herpes be diagnosed?

If you think you may have caught herpes, visit your GP or a sexual health clinic. Your doctor or a nurse will take a swab of your blisters and send this off to be tested – they’ll come back to you with a diagnosis in a few days.

Is there a cure for herpes?

No, there is no cure for herpes. Once you have the condition you will be a carrier for life. As noted above, over half of the global population has one strand or other of the disease and it’s not a ‘serious’ illness.

If you do have herpes, it is important to consider how it will affect your lifestyle and some major life choices:

  • Having a baby

Some women who have herpes may choose to have a cesarean section to reduce the risk of passing the illness onto their child during childbirth. Speak to your gynaecologist about your options here.

  • Telling new partners

Herpes can be passed on at any time, but it is most likely to be passed on during an outbreak. If you have a new partner, you should tell them you have the condition and discuss your options. If you have genital herpes, using a condom is an effective (although not entirely risk-free) way of reducing transmission. The same goes with HSV-1 – refrain from kissing when you are having an outbreak.

What might increase herpes side effects and outbreaks?

There are a number of things which may trigger the side effects of herpes and cause an outbreak. These include:

  • Sex

The friction of sexual intercourse can irritate the skin and bring on herpes symptoms. You might find it useful to use a water-based lubricant to reduce inflammation.

  • Over-exposure to sunlight

Too much sun seems to bring on cold sores for some people – when it is sunny out, make sure you apply sun cream (including around your mouth if you have HSV-1), wear a hat and keep in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

  • The common cold

Colds seem to trigger herpes in some people.

  • A weak immune system

You may have a weak immune system because you are suffering from another illness or recovering from surgery. In these instances you may also have a herpes outbreak.

How to treat side effects of herpes during an outbreak

Over time, you will get used to living with herpes and can often predict when you are about to have an outbreak (for HSV-1 it’s about once per year, 4-5 times for HSV-2). If you notice tingling or burning, there are some things you can do to reduce the intensity and duration of the outbreak.

Treating side effects of herpes at home:

Home remedies for herpes include:

  • Taking over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, aspirin and paracetamol
  • Take a lukewarm bath in salted water
  • Keep the infected area dry and clean
  • Choose to wear loose fitting clothes and cotton underwear

Medicine to treat herpes side effects

There are a handful of different types of herpes treatments which you can take when you have an outbreak. If you have genital herpes, your options include:

Living with herpes

Although it can be a frustrating illness, herpes is relatively easy to manage and with the right treatment and choices it shouldn’t have a big impact on your life.

As you get used to living with herpes, you might find it helpful to simply order prescriptions for herpes treatment online each time you notice an outbreak coming on. That lets you get on with your life without herpes getting in the way.

Dr Clare Morrison
Dr Clare Morrison
Experienced General Practitioner in Hampshire since 1995, with particular interest in Nutrition, Obesity and Smoking Cessation.
Originally published July 31 2019, updated July 31 2019