Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Annually, an estimated 776,000 people in the U.S. contract genital herpes.


Both men and women can contract genital herpes, although it’s more commonly diagnosed in women.

Genital Herpes
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What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a common type of STD. It’s a viral infection that can cause sores to develop on the genitals, rectal area, buttocks, and thighs. People with compromised immune systems due to other conditions, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or leukemia are more likely to develop more painful, longer-lasting outbreaks of herpes sores.


The herpes simplex virus is transmitted when skin-to-skin contact is made. It’s often spread during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It’s not necessary to have penetrating sex or to ejaculate; the virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact only. Note that it’s also possible to develop symptoms of herpes on the lips, mouth, and throat. This is called oral herpes. The blisters associated with oral herpes are sometimes called cold sores or fever blisters.

Signs and Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Some people have few, mild symptoms of herpes, and might not even realize they have the disease. Others experience frequent, severe symptoms. The symptoms of genital herpes occur in outbreaks. Often, the first outbreak in a newly infected person will occur within two to 20 days of the initial infection. However, some people may not experience an outbreak for years after being infected. 


The initial outbreak may last two to four weeks. This first episode of symptoms also tends to be the most severe. As time passes, people generally find that they experience fewer outbreaks overall, and that the symptoms become less severe. 


The hallmark sign of genital herpes is the development of blisters on the buttocks, anus, the insides of the thighs, penis, cervix, vulva, or vagina. It’s easy to mistake these blisters for acne at first. After a while, the blisters will break, becoming open sores. In addition to these painful, itchy sores, people might experience the following symptoms:

  • Burning during urination

  • Difficult urination

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Headache

  • Achiness and fatigue

  • Swollen glands in the pelvic region, underarms, and throat areas

Causes of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two different kinds of herpes simplex virus that can cause genital herpes. They are HSV-1 and HSV-2.  Note that HSV-1 is usually responsible for oral herpes and HSV-2 is usually responsible for genital herpes. However, if a person gives oral sex to someone with HSV-2, that person can contract oral herpes from the HSV-2 strain. 


It’s important to note that sometimes, herpes spreads without sexual contact. Occasionally, a mother with genital herpes may pass it on to her baby during childbirth. In addition, a person with a cold sore can spread oral herpes to someone else just by giving them a quick peck. 


Once someone has contracted herpes, there will always be a risk of passing on the virus. It’s possible to spread herpes even when no blisters or sores are present. However, the virus is most contagious when the patient is in the midst of an outbreak, with open, wet sores.


There is a persistent myth that states it’s possible to contract herpes from sitting on a toilet seat after an infected person uses it. Fortunately, the herpes simplex virus cannot survive long when it’s outside its host. This means that when it’s passed onto a toilet seat, it will die very quickly. In addition, it’s not possible to transmit herpes when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or hugs someone or holds their hand.

Diagnosis of Genital Herpes

When a patient is suspected of having genital herpes, the doctor will perform a physical exam to visually assess the sores or blisters. Lab tests can confirm the diagnosis. The doctor may gently scrape a sore to take a tissue sample. This is known as a viral culture.


Another option is to do a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. PCR tests the DNA in a sample of tissue, blood, or spinal fluid. This test can determine whether HSV is present, and if so, which type of HSV the patient has. Lastly, a doctor may decide to run a blood test to check for the presence of HSV antibodies. The body will only manufacture those antibodies if HSV is present in the body.

Treatment and Care of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is not curable. However, treatment can manage the disease and its symptoms. Since herpes is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help. Instead, doctors may prescribe antiviral medications. Some patients may be instructed to use the medications only when an outbreak occurs, while others are instructed to use the medicine daily, even in the absence of symptoms. Most patients find the antiviral medications easy to tolerate. 


By following the doctor’s medication instructions, patients can accelerate the speed at which sores heal during an active outbreak. Treatment can also reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of outbreaks. It will also minimize the risk of transmitting the virus to others, although it’s still important to use condoms during all types of sex for maximum protection.

When to Speak to Someone About Genital Herpes

Although there is no cure for genital herpes, treatment can help manage the symptoms and reduce the likelihood that it will spread to sexual partners. Because of this, it’s important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you may have genital herpes. Be prepared to discuss all of your symptoms, and write down a list of questions you may have for the doctor.


In addition to talking to your doctor about genital herpes, you may need to speak with other people you know. If you’re currently in an intimate relationship, you will need to tell that person that you’ve been diagnosed with herpes. Your partner will also need to get tested. If you’ve had previous intimate relationships, you should reach out to those individuals to let them know you have been diagnosed. They should also consider getting tested. 


It can be difficult to talk to current or former partners about a diagnosis of herpes. However, not talking to them will only make things worse. Former partners may unknowingly spread the infection to other people, for example. Ask your medical provider for advice on starting the conversation.

This page offers general health information to facilitate discussion with your telehealth provider. You must not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

If this is a medical emergency, please call 911. For mental health emergencies, call 988.

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