Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease/infection (STD/STI) caused by a common virus called herpes simplex. Over 50 million Americans (1 in 5 adults) have been infected, although some do not develop any symptoms.
There are several types of herpes simplex virus. Type 2 (HSV-2) most often causes genital sores, but type 1 (the type that most often appears as a cold sores on the mouth) can also cause infection in the genital area.
The genital sores contain the herpes virus that can be passed to another person during sexual contact. A person with genital herpes can also spread the infection to other parts of his or her body by direct contact (i.e., by touching the sores and then touching other parts of the body).
Signs and Symptoms
- Most people may never develop symptoms or the symptoms are too mild to notice.
- Develop within 2-30 days, or longer, or not at all.
- Small, painful fluid-filled blisters on genitals, mouth or anus.
- Blisters progress to open sores that crust over and heal within 1-2 weeks.
- Blisters may be “hidden” in the vagina.
- First episode most severe, subsequent episodes milder.
- Itching or burning on skin are common in area where blisters are about to appear.
- Initial infection often accompanied by fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes.
- Blisters go away, but infection is still in the body.
- Blisters can return periodically, but usually with shorter duration and less severity.
- If you think you have been exposed or show signs of herpes infection, see your health care provider.
Genital herpes is spread through:
- Vaginal sex
- Oral sex
- Anal sex
- Contact with infected person's lesions
- Infected mother to newborn
Herpes can also be spread from one area of the body to another via contact with or touching an infected area.
Viral shedding may occur in the absence of blisters, so transmission is possible when lesions are absent. Most transmission occurs in absence of sores.
Genital herpes can:
- Spread to sex partners.
- Make infection by other germs, like HIV, easier, as the blisters provide easy entry to other STD germs.
- Cause recurrent painful outbreaks.
Genital herpes and pregnancy:
- Most pregnant women with recurrent genital herpes deliver normal infants.
- Newborn may acquire infection from mother during delivery.
- Infection in newborn may cause death, or severe damage to the brain, lungs and liver.
- Risk is highest for infants born to mothers who have first episode of genital herpes during pregnancy.
Recommendations to reduce transmission:
- Avoiding vaginal, oral or anal sex is the best way to prevent STDs.
- Condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of genital herpes only when the infected areas are covered or protected by the condom.
- Always use condoms during vaginal and anal sex.
- Use a condom for oral sex on a penis.
- Use a barrier (dental dam or condom cut in half) for oral sex on a vagina or anus.
- Limit the number of sex partners.
- Notify sex partners immediately if infected.
- When pregnant, inform doctor if previously infected with herpes.
- Never have sex with someone who has genital herpes when sores are present.
- CDC Condom Locator
Search by zip code to find free or low-cost condoms near you.
Testing and Treatment
- Get a test from a medical provider if infection is suspected.
- No cure is available; infection persists for life.
- Recurrent episodes of blisters can be decreased by taking an antiviral medication each day.
- Treatment of recurrent episodes generally shortens the length of outbreaks.
- Comfort measures are available for recurrent episodes.