What to do during a herpes outbreak

The blisters and sores that appear during a herpes outbreak often clear up by themselves. And sometimes this only takes a few days. But they can be painful, itchy and uncomfortable when they're around.

You can try a few things at home to help ease the symptoms and heal your outbreaks.

Firstly, you should speak to your GP or sexual health clinic about treatment. Antiviral creams can help shorten the time of your outbreak. You can also try our online genital diagnosis service if you’ve already been diagnosed with herpes in a clinic. If it’s available where you live, SH:24 can send you free herpes treatment by post.

Treatment works best if you start using it as soon as you see symptoms, so it’s a good idea to contact a clinic immediately.

Other things that can help reduce the discomfort and speed up healing are:

  • washing the area every day with salt water (saline). Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt into a mug of warm water and use it to clean the outbreak.

  • put petroleum jelly (Vaseline) over the sores as a layer of protection to stop them from sticking to clothing

  • regular pain relief, like paracetamol, can help with the pain

  • use an ice pack wrapped in a flannel or tea towel on the area. Do not put ice directly on the skin.

  • your clinic or GP may be able to prescribe you a numbing cream called Lidocaine 5%

  • try not to touch the sores unless you’re putting on treatment

  • always wash your hands before and after applying cream

  • wear loose underwear and clothing so the fabric does not irritate the area

  • if it’s painful to pee, try doing it in the bath. The water can help soothe the pain.

  • if you have trouble passing urine or cannot pee, contact or go to A&E

Herpes is very easy to pass on during an outbreak, so do not have any sex when the blisters are showing or when you can feel the tingle that indicates an outbreak is on its way.

Even when there are no symptoms, you can still pass on the virus. This is called asymptomatic shedding. The best way to reduce the chance of passing it on is to use a condom for all types of sex and to avoid sharing sex toys. Or wash them and cover them with condoms before sharing.

After your first outbreak, the symptoms will likely come back in the future. Treatment can only help the blisters and sores, it cannot clear the virus from your body. But the good news is, after the first episode of herpes, your symptoms will usually be milder in any future outbreaks. Eventually, you may stop getting outbreaks altogether as your body learns how to fight the virus. And of course, now you know how to handle an outbreak when it happens.

Remember, keep on top of your regular STI screening. Check out our advice on safer sex, relationships and herpes.

Written by Hel Burrough. Senior Content Designer, SH:24 and Fettle
Reviewed by Helen Burkitt. Senior Sexual Health and Contraception Nurse
Published on: 09 July 2024