Herpes in a baby (neonatal herpes)

Neonatal herpes is a herpes infection in a newborn baby. It's caused by the herpes simplex virus. This is a highly contagious virus that can cause cold sores and genital ulcers in adults.

About neonatal herpes

Herpes can be very serious for a young baby whose immune system won't have fully developed to fight off the virus.

Neonatal herpes is rare in Northern Ireland. It can be prevented by following some simple advice, (see preventing neonatal herpes section below).

Symptoms and signs of herpes infection in babies

Because newborn babies have underdeveloped immune systems, they can quickly become seriously ill after catching the virus.

Call your GP or your health visitor straight away if your baby:

These are early warning signs that your baby may be unwell.

Call 999 immediately if your baby:

  • is lacking in energy (listless)
  • is becoming floppy and unresponsive
  • is difficult to wake up from sleep
  • has difficulty breathing or starts grunting
  • breathes rapidly
  • has a blue tongue and skin (cyanosis)

Very often the baby won't have any specific herpes symptoms, such as a rash. But they can become unwell very quickly, so you need to act fast.

How a newborn baby catches herpes

During pregnancy and labour

A newborn baby is at risk of catching herpes if the mother had genital herpes for the first time within the last 6 weeks of her pregnancy.

There's a risk the mother will have passed the infection on to her baby if she had a vaginal delivery. 

This risk is much lower if the mother has had genital herpes before.

After birth

The herpes simplex virus can also be passed on to a newborn baby if:

  • a person has a cold sore and kisses the baby
  • the mother breastfeeds her baby with herpes sores on her breast – these can develop after touching her cold sore and then her breast

Cold sores are at their most contagious when they burst (rupture). They will stay contagious until completely healed.

Treating neonatal herpes

Neonatal herpes is usually treated with antiviral drugs given directly into the baby's vein (intravenously). This treatment may be needed for several weeks.

Any related complications, such as fits (seizures), will also need to be treated.

The baby can be breastfed while receiving treatment, unless the mother has herpes sores around her nipples.

If the mother is taking antiviral treatment too, this can be excreted in her breast milk but isn't thought to cause any harm to the baby.

Sometimes neonatal herpes will only affect the baby's eyes, mouth or skin. In these cases, most babies will make a complete recovery with antiviral treatment.

But the condition is much more serious if it's spread to the baby's organs. Nearly a third of infants with this type of neonatal herpes will die, even after they have been treated. 

If widespread herpes isn't treated immediately, there's a high chance the baby will die.

Preventing neonatal herpes

If you're pregnant and have a history of genital herpes, tell your doctor or midwife. 

You may need to take medication during the last month of pregnancy to prevent an outbreak of vaginal sores during labour.

Delivery by caesarean section is recommended if the genital herpes has occurred for the first time in the last 6 weeks of your pregnancy.

If you develop a cold sore or think you're coming down with a herpes infection, take these precautions:

  • do not kiss any babies
  • wash your hands before contact with a baby
  • wash your hands before breastfeeding and cover up any cold sores to avoid accidentally touching your mouth and then breast – this is enough to transfer the virus

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

Health conditions A to Z

Search by health condition or symptoms

Or find conditions beginning with …

Share this page

What do you want to do?
What is your question about?
Do you want a reply?
Your email address
To reply to you, we need your email address
Your feedback

We will not reply to your feedback.  Don't include any personal or financial information, for example National Insurance, credit card numbers, or phone numbers.

This feedback form is for issues with the nidirect website only.

You can use it to report a problem or suggest an improvement to a webpage.

If you have a question about a government service or policy, you should contact the relevant government organisation directly as we don’t have access to information about you held by government departments.

You must be aged 13 years or older - if you’re younger, ask someone with parental responsibility to send the feedback for you.

The nidirect privacy notice applies to any information you send on this feedback form.

Don't include any personal or financial information, for example National Insurance, credit card numbers, or phone numbers.

Plain text only, 750 characters maximum.
Plain text only, 750 characters maximum.

What to do next

Comments or queries about angling can be emailed to anglingcorrespondence@daera-ni.gov.uk 

What to do next

If you have a comment or query about benefits, you will need to contact the government department or agency which handles that benefit.  Contacts for common benefits are listed below.

Carer's Allowance

Call 0800 587 0912
Email 
dcs.incomingpostteamdhc2@nissa.gsi.gov.uk

Discretionary support / Short-term benefit advance

Call 0800 587 2750 
Email 
customerservice.unit@communities-ni.gov.uk

Disability Living Allowance

Call 0800 587 0912 
Email dcs.incomingpostteamdhc2@nissa.gsi.gov.uk

Employment and Support Allowance

Call 0800 587 1377

Jobseeker’s Allowance

Contact your local Jobs & Benefits office

Personal Independence Payment

Call 0800 587 0932

If your query is about another benefit, select ‘Other’ from the drop-down menu above.

What to do next

Comments or queries about the Blue Badge scheme can be emailed to bluebadges@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk or you can also call 0300 200 7818.

What to do next

For queries or advice about careers, contact the Careers Service.

What to do next

For queries or advice about Child Maintenance, contact the Child Maintenance Service.

What to do next

For queries or advice about claiming compensation due to a road problem, contact DFI Roads claim unit.

What to do next

For queries or advice about criminal record checks, email ani@accessni.gov.uk

What to do next

Application and payment queries can be emailed to ema_ni@slc.co.uk

What to do next

For queries or advice about employment rights, contact the Labour Relations Agency.

What to do next

For queries or advice about birth, death, marriage and civil partnership certificates and research, contact the General Register Office Northern Ireland (GRONI) by email gro_nisra@finance-ni.gov.uk

What to do next

For queries about:

If your query is about another topic, select ‘Other’ from the drop-down menu above.

What to do next

For queries or advice about passports, contact HM Passport Office.

What to do next

For queries or advice about Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs), including parking tickets and bus lane PCNs, email dcu@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk

What to do next

For queries or advice about pensions, contact the Northern Ireland Pension Centre.

What to do next

If you wish to report a problem with a road or street you can do so online in this section.

If you wish to check on a problem or fault you have already reported, contact DfI Roads.

What to do next

For queries or advice about historical, social or cultural records relating to Northern Ireland, use the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) enquiry service.

What to do next

For queries or advice about rates, email:
rating@lpsni.gov.uk

For queries or advice about property valuation, email:
valuation@lpsni.gov.uk

For queries or advice about land registry, email:
CustomerInformation.LandRegistration@finance-ni.gov.uk

For mapping queries, email:
Mapping.Helpdesk@finance-ni.gov.uk

What to do next

For queries or advice about  60+ and Senior Citizen SmartPasses (which can be used to get concessionary travel on public transport), contact Smartpass - Translink.