How Common is Herpes in the UK: A Concise Analysis of Prevalence and Statistics

Last updated:

By Steve Page

Genital herpes is a prevalent health concern, as it is the most common ulcerative sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United Kingdom. Affecting both sexually active men and women, the herpes simplex virus (HSV) can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Many individuals may carry the virus without displaying any noticeable symptoms, making it a significant concern for public health.

In 2020, England saw 20,530 newly diagnosed cases of genital herpes infection in sexual health clinics, accounting for 6% of all newly diagnosed STIs. The two primary types of herpes virus are HSV-1, responsible for oral herpes or cold sores, and HSV-2, which causes genital herpes. Approximately 70% of the population carries HSV-1, while 23% of UK adults have HSV-2.

With such alarming statistics, it is vital to raise awareness about herpes prevalence, transmission, and prevention in the UK. Understanding the commonality of the virus assists in reducing the stigma surrounding the infection and encourages individuals to seek appropriate treatment and preventative measures to maintain their sexual health.

Understanding Herpes

Herpes is a common viral infection affecting a large percentage of the population in the UK. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which has two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause infections in various parts of the body, but they tend to have different preferences for the regions they infect.

What is the Difference Between Herpes and Genital Herpes?

Herpes is a general term referring to infections caused by the herpes simplex virus. Genital herpes specifically refers to herpes infections that affect the genital area. Genital herpes is typically caused by HSV-2, although HSV-1 can also cause genital infections in some cases. HSV-1, on the other hand, more commonly causes oral herpes, which presents as cold sores around the mouth.


Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) primarily causes oral herpes. It is a highly contagious virus, which can be transmitted through close personal contact, such as kissing or sharing objects like toothbrushes or eating utensils. Oral herpes caused by HSV-1 is characterised by cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth and lips. However, it is important to note that not everyone with HSV-1 will experience symptoms or outbreaks.


Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) predominantly causes genital herpes. It is transmitted through sexual contact and can cause painful blisters and sores in the genital area. Like HSV-1, not everyone with HSV-2 will experience symptoms or outbreaks, making it harder for individuals to know they have the virus. Genital herpes is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and requires proper management to reduce the risk of transmission to sexual partners.

Understanding the differences between HSV-1 and HSV-2 is essential for raising awareness and promoting preventative measures to reduce the spread of herpes in the UK.

Herpes in the UK: The Numbers

Statistics on Herpes in the UK

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection in the UK, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The symptoms may include outbreaks of blisters, sores, fever, headache, and swollen lymph nodes, among others. However, sometimes, the infection may not show any obvious symptoms.

In 2020, England reported 20,530 first episodes of genital herpes infections diagnosed in sexual health clinics, accounting for 6% of all newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections (STIs) [1]. This data demonstrates the prevalence of herpes in the UK, with a significant number of people being affected by the virus.


While the herpes virus affects people of all age groups, it is more prevalent among certain demographics. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 67% of people under the age of 50 have HSV-1, and 13% of people between the ages of 15 and 49 have HSV-2 globally[2]. Although these statistics are not specific to the UK, they provide insight into the widespread nature of the herpes virus and its substantial impact on various population groups.

Herpes is not limited to specific genders, as both males and females can be affected by the virus. It is crucial for sexually active individuals to be aware of their sexual health and practice safe sex to minimise the risk of contracting herpes and other STIs.

It is worth noting that the overall number of STI diagnoses in 2020 decreased by 32% compared to 2019[3]. This decline could be attributed to a combination of factors, including reduced sexual activity and access to healthcare services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This temporary decrease should not lead to complacency, as herpes and other STIs remain a concern in the UK.

Herpes Transmission and Risk Factors

Herpes is a common viral infection in the UK, with two different viruses causing the symptoms: HSV-1, which is responsible for oral and genital herpes, and HSV-2, which primarily causes genital herpes. The infection is highly infectious and can be transmitted in various ways.

There are several factors that contribute to the transmission of herpes. These include:

  • Close physical contact, such as kissing or sexual activity, can spread the virus between partners.
  • Genital herpes can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex, and it is more likely to be transmitted from a male to a female due to the nature of penile-vaginal intercourse.
  • HSV-1 can cause both oral and genital herpes, meaning it can be transmitted through oral-genital contact as well as oral-oral contact.
  • Herpes can be transmitted from a pregnant person to their baby during childbirth, leading to neonatal herpes, although this is rare.

Risk factors that increase the likelihood of herpes transmission include:

  • Having multiple sexual partners or engaging in unprotected sex, which raises the chances of encountering someone with the virus.
  • Being female, as women are more at risk for contracting genital herpes due to biological factors.
  • Having a weakened immune system, which can make it easier for the virus to establish an infection.
  • Having an existing sexually transmitted infection (STI), as this might increase vulnerability to other infections, including herpes.

In addition, having an HSV-2 infection can increase the risk of acquiring HIV infection by approximately three-fold. It is essential to understand these risk factors and engage in preventative measures, such as using condoms and practicing safe sex, to reduce the likelihood of herpes transmission.

Symptoms and Complications

Common Herpes Symptoms

Herpes symptoms can vary between individuals and depend on the type of herpes virus causing the infection. Generally, the most common symptom of herpes is the appearance of blisters or sores around or near the infected site, which can be oral or genital. The sores can be accompanied by pain or itching, and the blisters may break open, ooze, and then crust over.

During their first infection, people may also experience a range of other symptoms, such as fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches, and general malaise. In some cases, individuals may not display any obvious symptoms at all.

Potential Herpes Complications

While herpes is generally manageable with appropriate treatment, there can be some complications associated with the infection. These can include:

  • Ocular herpes: This involves the infection of the eye, leading to pain, redness, rash or sores on the eyelids or around the eyes, swelling of the cornea, blurred vision, light sensitivity, and discharge.
  • Hearing loss: In rare cases, herpes infection can cause inflammation of the inner ear, leading to temporary or permanent hearing loss.
  • Systemic infection: In some cases, particularly for individuals with weak immune systems, the herpes simplex virus can cause severe systemic disease, affecting the vital organs.
  • Transmission to newborns: If a pregnant person has a genital herpes outbreak during childbirth, the virus can be transmitted to the newborn, causing potentially life-threatening complications.

It is crucial for individuals diagnosed with herpes to follow their healthcare provider’s advice on managing the infection to minimise these complications and maintain overall wellbeing.

Herpes Treatment and Prevention

In the UK, herpes is a common infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This section discusses the available methods for herpes treatment and prevention, including testing and diagnosis, antiviral medications, symptom relief, and the current state of finding a cure for herpes.

Testing and Diagnosis

Early diagnosis is important for effective herpes treatment and prevention. Medical professionals may use various testing methods to confirm the presence of HSV, such as clinical examinations of symptoms, swab tests, or blood tests. If you suspect you may have herpes, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatments.

Antiviral Medications

While there is no known cure for herpes, there are antiviral medications available to help manage the infection. These medications can reduce the severity of symptoms, speed up the healing process, and decrease the frequency of outbreaks. Some common antiviral medications include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. For optimal results, it is essential to start the medication within 48 hours of noticing the symptoms.

Symptom Relief

Besides antiviral medications, there are various ways to alleviate the discomfort caused by herpes symptoms. It is important to keep the affected area clean and dry, avoid tight clothing, and take over-the-counter pain relievers as needed. Applying ice or a cold compress and using topical creams may also provide temporary relief. Additionally, taking care of your overall health—such as staying hydrated, getting sufficient sleep, and managing stress—can help lessen the severity and frequency of herpes outbreaks.

Is There a Cure for Herpes?

Currently, there is no known cure for herpes. Treatment options are aimed at managing symptoms and preventing outbreaks. However, ongoing research efforts are focused on finding a potential cure or more effective treatment options. In the meantime, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and seeking prompt medical attention when required can help mitigate the impact of herpes on your well-being.

Preventing Transmission

Practising safe sex is essential in preventing the spread of genital herpes simplex virus (HSV) in the UK. One effective method to reduce the risk of transmission is the consistent and correct use of condoms during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It is important to note, however, that condoms may not cover all HSV-infected areas and transmission can still occur through contact with uncovered genital or anal regions.

Another key factor in preventing transmission is avoiding sexual activity when visible sores are present, significantly reducing the risk of spreading the virus to a partner. Additionally, antiviral medicines, such as Aciclovir, can help suppress herpes outbreaks and further decrease the chance of passing on the virus by 50% when taken consistently.

While no method can guarantee complete prevention, implementing the following steps can considerably lower the risk of spreading herpes:

  • Consistent and correct use of condoms during sexual activity
  • Avoiding sexual contact when visible sores are present
  • Taking prescribed antiviral medication, such as Aciclovir

Individuals living with genital herpes should engage in open communication with their partners about the condition and the precautions both parties should take to minimise the risk of transmission. Regular check-ups and staying informed about any changes in one’s own sexual health are also crucial in preventing the spread of HSV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Public Health Efforts and Education

Addressing the prevalence of herpes in the UK requires public health campaigns and educational resources that effectively convey information and foster awareness.

UK Public Health Campaigns

Public health initiatives in the UK aim to reduce the rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including herpes. These campaigns often focus on promoting safer sex practices, regular STI testing, and informed decision-making. Organisations, such as the National Health Service (NHS) and Public Health England (PHE), are actively engaged in spreading awareness and providing accessible testing services.

Lately, STI diagnoses have decreased, with a 32% reduction in 2020 compared to 2019. This decrease is in part due to public health campaigns and the increasing availability of sexual health services throughout the UK. However, ensuring that this trend continues requires sustained efforts from both public health organisations and individuals.

Educational Resources

One of the most effective means of preventing herpes and other STIs is through education. There are numerous sources of information and support available for those affected and their partners. Some key providers of educational materials and guidance include:

  • NHS: The NHS offers comprehensive information about herpes, its symptoms, treatment, and prevention, along with advice on how to maintain sexual health.
  • Public Health England: PHE provides data and resources for healthcare professionals, policy makers, and the general public to better understand the dynamics of STIs in the UK, including herpes.
  • Sexual Health Clinics: Local sexual health clinics offer face-to-face advice, testing services, and treatment for herpes and other STIs in confidential and supportive environments.
  • Charitable Organisations: Charities, such as the Herpes Viruses Association, can provide guidance, support, and evidence-based information for those living with herpes.

Increasing understanding and awareness through public health efforts and education is essential in managing and reducing the prevalence of herpes in the UK. By providing accurate information, resources, and support, these initiatives contribute to improved sexual health and well-being for individuals and communities alike.