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What are the risks of genital herpes during pregnancy?

If you get genital herpes during pregnancy, there’s a small risk of complications, depending on whether you’ve had genital herpes attacks before, and what stage of pregnancy you’re at.

However, most women with genital herpes have healthy babies and a normal vaginal birth.

If you think you have genital herpes during pregnancy, see your GP or midwife, or visit your local GUM or sexual health clinic immediately for tests and treatment.

How is genital herpes passed on?

The infection can be passed on in several ways. For example:

  • by skin-to-skin contact
  • through vaginal sex, anal sex and oral sex
  • from a pregnant woman to her baby at the time of birth

Sores or blisters develop around your genitals. When the sores have healed, the virus stays in your body and can become active again at any time.

Stages of pregnancy

If your first attack of genital herpes happens:

  • before you become pregnant – the risk to your baby is very low, as you'll have antibodies to the virus, which will protect your unborn baby
  • during the first three months of pregnancy – there's a small risk of miscarriage and an increased chance of passing on the infection to your baby
  • later in your pregnancy, particularly within six weeks of giving birth – there is a further increased risk of passing on the infection to your baby

Read more about genital herpes and pregnancy.

What’s the treatment?

If you get genital herpes for the first time when you’re pregnant, you may be treated with antiviral medicine (aciclovir), to clear up the infection before your baby is born. There’s no evidence of risk to the baby from this medicine.

If you’ve already had genital herpes and you get more attacks during pregnancy, you may be treated with aciclovir from week 36 of your pregnancy until your baby is born.

If your condition is very painful, or you cannot pass urine, you may be admitted to hospital.

You may also be offered a caesarean section if:

  • you have had genital herpes before and have active sores when your labour starts
  • you get genital herpes for the first time later in your pregnancy, particularly within six weeks of giving birth

This is so your baby doesn’t come into contact with any active sores during the birth.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 12/05/2015

Next review due: 30/09/2017