Genital Herpes

What are Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease caused by one of two viruses: Herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). If you’re infected with genital herpes, you’ll experience outbreaks of sores in your genital area that range from mild to very painful. There is no cure for herpes, but you can minimize its impact through a healthy lifestyle and medication.

You can get genital herpes by having unprotected sexual contact with a partner who is infected. The virus is spread when you are exposed to the fluid via skin-to-skin contact with the area around an infected person’s herpes sore. About one in every six U.S. residents ages 14 to 49 carry the virus.

HSV-1 can also spread through non-sexual contact, is extremely common and affects about half the U.S. population. It can cause oral sores, sometimes called cold sores, around the lips and can also be spread to the genital area. HSV-2 is responsible only for sores below the waist, in the genital and rectal areas.

What are the Symptoms of Genital Herpes?

You may not have any symptoms or very mild symptoms from genital herpes. In fact, many people — possibly the majority — who are infected never know they have the virus.

If you do have more serious symptoms, you’ll likely notice them 3 to 7 days after you’ve been exposed. A rash of small blisters that are about 1 to 3 millimeters wide appears on or near your genital area. Later, the blisters open to form ulcers, or sores. In men, this is typically on the penis; women usually get the sores both outside and inside the vagina. This can last for between 2 and 4 weeks.

You may also have a fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and general muscle aches the first time you experience an outbreak. These symptoms are less likely to occur during subsequent outbreaks.

As you become more familiar with how outbreaks begin, you may feel some pain and tingling before you see any sign of sores.

Genital Herpes Causes

A sexually transmitted infection, genital herpes is a viral disease caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). This highly contagious virus spreads from person to person via skin contact through vaginal, anal or oral sex. There are two types of Herpes Simplex Virus, namely HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both strains cause genital herpes.

When HSV is present on moist skin that lines the genitals, anus or mouth, it can be passed on to another person through body contact. Other parts of the body through which the virus can be transmitted include eyes and skin. For instance, it is possible to contract genital herpes when you kiss or have oral sex with an individual who has a sore throat. You can also get infected when you share toys (mostly sex toys) with an infected person.

Genital herpes can be reactivated to cause new episodes of the infection. This is known as recurrence. This may occur during friction of the genital area during sexual intercourse. Other possible triggers of genital herpes recurrence include surgical procedures in the genital area, an underlying medical condition, stress and anxiety, a weakened immune system and excessive consumption of alcohol.

How are Genital Herpes Treated?

If you believe you have been exposed to genital herpes, you may want to see a doctor before you experience any symptoms. A medical professional can treat you with anti-viral medications that reduce the symptoms of an outbreak and may make later outbreaks less severe.

For very frequent or painful outbreaks, your doctor may recommend medications that you take daily to help prevent and manage outbreaks. This is called suppressive therapy.

If you have had genital herpes outbreaks before and experience mild symptoms, you can take over-the-counter pain relief and use cold clothes over the affected areas to reduce pain. Wearing loose clothing and avoiding exposure to sprays or perfumes in the genital area may also help keep symptoms minimal.

Genital Herpes Prevention

Being a sexually transmitted infection, the best way to prevent genital herpes is to avoid risky sexual contact with an infected partner. This includes oral, vaginal and anal sex. Using protection like dental dams and condoms will greatly lower your risk of contracting genital herpes.

Avoid unprotected sex during a herpes outbreak because this is the time when the spread is most possible. If you have to engage in sex, be sure to use protection, even when everything seems OK. Avoid sex until all your sores are totally healed, and the scabs off.

Do not wet your contact lenses with spit as this might spread oral herpes to the eyes. Also, avoid touching sores because this can result in the spread of the infection. If you get into contact with a sore, ensure that you wash your hands with soap right away. Finally, avoid kissing people who have cold sores in their mouths.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
June 21, 2018