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Genital Herpes

Quick Facts

What is it?

  • Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by two types of viruses. The viruses are called herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2).
  • The most reliable way to avoid transmission of STDs is to abstain from oral, vaginal, and anal sex or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner known to be uninfected.
Diagnosed visually and/or with laboratory tests.No cure, but medications can prevent or shorten outbreaks.Abstain from vaginal, oral, and anal sex.

What is genital herpes?

Herpes is a common STD that any sexually active person can get. Most people with the virus do not have symptoms. It is important to know that even without signs of the disease, it can still spread to sexual partners.

Genital herpes is an STD that appears on the sex organs and can be caused by two types of viruses. The viruses are called herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2).

How common is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is common in the United States where about 17 out of 100 people, ages 14-49, have genital herpes.

How is genital herpes spread?

You can get herpes by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the disease.

Fluids found in a herpes sore carry the virus, and contact with those fluids can cause infection. You can also get herpes from an infected sex partner who does not have a visible sore or who may not know they are infected because the virus can be released through the skin and spread to a sex partner.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Most people who have herpes have no symptoms, or very mild ones. You may not notice mild symptoms or you may mistake them for another skin condition, such as a pimple or ingrown hair. Because of this, most people who have herpes do not know they have it.

Genital herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take weeks to heal. These symptoms are sometimes called having an outbreak. The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.

Repeat outbreaks of genital herpes are common, especially during the first year after infection. Repeat outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe than the first outbreak. Although the infection can stay in the body for the rest of your life, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years.

You should be examined by your healthcare provider if your partner has an STD, or if you or your partner notice symptoms of an STD such as an unusual sore, smelly discharge, burning when urinating, or, for women, vaginal bleeding between periods.

What are the risk factors for genital herpes?

A risk factor is the chance that something will harm or otherwise affect a person's health.

Risk factors for becoming infected with genital herpes include:

  • Engaging in unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Herpes symptoms can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered by a latex condom. However, outbreaks can also occur in areas that are not covered by a condom–so condoms may not fully protect you from getting herpes.
  • Having sex with multiple partners.
  • Having a sexual partner who has tested positive for herpes.

Have an honest and open talk with your healthcare provider and ask whether you should be tested for herpes or other STDs.

What is the link between genital herpes and HIV?

Genital herpes can cause sores or breaks in the skin or lining of the mouth, vagina, and rectum. The genital sores caused by herpes can bleed easily. When the sores come into contact with the mouth, vagina, or rectum during sex, they increase the risk of giving or getting HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) if you or your partner has HIV.

What is the link between genital herpes and oral herpes (cold sores on the mouth)?

Oral herpes (such as cold sores or fever blisters on or around the mouth) is usually caused by HSV-1. Most people are infected with HSV-1 during childhood from non-sexual contact. For example, people can become infected by a kiss from a relative or friend with oral herpes. More than half of the population in the United States has HSV-1, even if they do not show any signs or symptoms. HSV-1 can also be spread from the mouth to the genitals through oral sex. This is why some cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-1, although most cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-2.

Are there tests for genital herpes?

Your healthcare provider often can diagnose genital herpes simply by looking at your symptoms. Laboratory tests can also be done including testing a sample from the sore(s) and a blood test. Ask your healthcare provider if you should be tested for herpes or other STDs.

How is genital herpes treated?

There is no cure for herpes. However, there are medications that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. One of these herpes medications can be taken daily and makes it less likely that you will pass the infection on to your sex partner(s), in addition to lessening the chance of having an outbreak or shortening the duration of the outbreak if you do have one.

I was treated for genital herpes. When can I have sex again?

Having sores or other symptoms of herpes can increase your risk of spreading the virus. Even if you do not have any symptoms, you can still infect your sex partners. Using condoms may help lower this risk but it will not get rid of the risk completely. If you have herpes, you should tell your sex partner(s) and let them know so they can get tested and treated if necessary.

What happens if I don't get treated?

Genital herpes can cause painful genital sores and can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems. If you touch your sores or the fluids from the sores, you may transfer herpes to another part of your body, such as your eyes. Do not touch the sores or fluids to avoid spreading herpes to another part of your body. If you touch the sores or fluids, immediately wash your hands thoroughly to help avoid spreading infection.

Some people who get genital herpes have concerns about how it will impact their overall health, sex life, and relationships. It is best for you to talk to a healthcare provider about those concerns, but it also is important to recognize that while herpes is not curable, it can be managed.

What are the implications of genital herpes on pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, it is even more important for you to go to prenatal care visits. If you are pregnant, there can be problems for you and your unborn child. You should tell your healthcare provider if you have ever had symptoms of, been exposed to, or been diagnosed with genital herpes. Sometimes genital herpes infection can lead to miscarriage. It can also make it more likely for you to deliver your baby too early. Herpes infection can be passed from you to your unborn child and cause a potentially deadly infection called neonatal herpes ("neonatal" classifies conditions relating to newborn children). It is important that you avoid becoming infected with herpes during pregnancy.

If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, you may be offered medication to treat herpes toward the end of your pregnancy to reduce the risk of having any symptoms and passing the disease to your baby during birth. At the time of delivery your doctor should carefully examine you for symptoms. If you have herpes symptoms at delivery, a cesarean section is usually performed.

Did You Know? (Genital Herpes)

Did You Know?

Did you know?Besides abstaining from all forms of sex, condoms are the best way to protect against STDs.

Learn more about Male Condoms

Content created by Office of Population Affairs
Content last reviewed on April 2, 2019