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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) & HIV
What to do if I’ve been exposed to genital herpes?

What to do if I’ve been exposed to genital herpes?

Updated on:
February 16, 2022

Know your risks of getting genital herpes from a genital herpes-positive partner

The likelihood of getting genital herpes from an infected sexual partner depends on several factors, including:

  • How you had sex
  • How frequently you've had sex
  • How often you used condoms during sex
  • If they had an active herpes lesion or not

Know that genital herpes is often asymptomatic

The majority of people with genital herpes are asymptomatic and do not experience any signs of genital herpes infection.

Get tested for genital herpes

Testing for genital herpes is easily done by a healthcare provider through swabs, blood testing, and/or visual diagnosis.

Healthcare providers may even be able to visually diagnose the lesions as herpes, using lab tests to confirm the diagnosis. 

The most common testing method in Canada is swabbing the surface of the lesion and sending it to a lab for testing. These swab tests can determine whether HSV-1 or HSV-2 caused the genital herpes infection. This kind of testing is usually not repeated once positive. 

Blood tests can also determine if someone has an HSV infection and which type of the virus. However, blood testing is limited because it does not reveal if an infection is active, the infection location on the body, or how and when it was contracted. 

Getting regular STI tests is an essential way to prevent infection or reinfection of sexual partners.

How urgent is a post-exposure treatment for genital herpes?

Start post-exposure treatment for genital herpes immediately after symptoms begin to appear. Antiviral medications can help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms while also reducing the risk of transmission to sexual partners.

Swab testing is most likely to detect HSV when completed with 72 hours of symptoms first appearing. Meaning, if you suspect you are experiencing symptoms, see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. 

Be sure to let your healthcare provider know that you may have had (or did have) exposure to genital herpes. 

While there is no specific deadline to get treated for genital herpes, upon being diagnosed, your doctor can prescribe antiviral medications that can help shorten the length and severity of the outbreak.

What happens if I don’t get treated?

Not receiving antiviral treatment for genital herpes means your symptoms may take longer to go away and could be more severe. It also means you may be at a higher risk of transmitting the herpes virus to your sexual partners.

Can I have sex after genital herpes exposure?

The incubation period for genital herpes is 2-12 days. Testing for HSV too early (before the blisters form) can result in a negative test result, even if you have the virus. If you suspect you've been exposed to genital herpes:

  1. Stop all sexual activity until you receive a formal diagnosis from your healthcare provider.  
  2. Make an appointment with your doctor 1-2 weeks after the exposure - unless symptoms appear sooner. 
  3. See a doctor immediately if you begin to experience symptoms.

Do I need to tell my partner(s)?

In Canada, genital herpes is not a reportable sexually transmitted infection. While it is not legally required, we recommend that you inform any sexual partners you’ve had 60 days before symptoms appeared or before the diagnosis date. 

It is not mandatory to inform sexual partners you have been diagnosed with genital herpes in Canada.

How do I tell them?

When contacting previous sexual partners about genital herpes, be direct and honest. Let them know that you contracted genital herpes and the diagnosis date. Encourage them to seek testing and treatment, and remind them that most people are asymptomatic.

It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but notifying your partners is the best way to protect them and others from transmitting the herpes virus. Although there's a lot of social stigma associated with STIs, they are a normal part of being sexually active - there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It's also important to remember that genital herpes is extremely common worldwide.


Reviewed by:
Dr. Caley Shukalek

Caley is passionate about evidence-based, patient-centred care, including telemedicine that can provide high quality care from wherever a patient may choose.

He helped create Alberta's PrEP guidelines and works as a specialist in General Internal Medicine with additional training in sexual health, including HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

He holds an Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, an MD from the University of Calgary and an MSc from the University of Alberta.