Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause sores to develop on the genitals. Some people have genital herpes without any symptoms.
This article gives an overview of genital herpes, including its symptoms, causes, treatments, and complications.
What is genital herpes?
People can contract this sexually transmitted infection (STI) through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Two types of virus can cause genital herpes:
- herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), which usually causes oral herpes
- herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2), which usually causes genital herpes
Oral herpes causes cold sores, or fever blisters, to appear on the lips. People usually get oral herpes through salivary contact rather than genital contact.
Although HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes, it can spread to the genitals through oral sex, especially if a person has open cold sores.
A person can have HSV-1 and HSV-2 at the same time.
There is currently no cure for genital herpes. It can be easy to transmit to others, even if a person does not have open sores.
To prevent the transmission of genital herpes, it is important to use barrier protection during sex.
How common is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is very common, affecting 11.9 percent of people ages 14–49 in the United States.
Females are more likely to have genital herpes than males because vaginal tissues can tear easily, allowing the virus to enter the body. Estimates suggest that genital herpes affects 1 in 5 females and 1 in 10 males ages 14–49.
Genital herpes does not always cause symptoms. A person may not know that they have this virus until it shows on a routine STI test.
When genital herpes does lead to symptoms, it typically causes open sores on the genitals and anus.
Initially, the sores usually develop on the part of the body that was first exposed to the virus. The lesions usually appear between 2 days and 3 weeks of sexual contact with a person who has genital herpes.
The hallmark of genital herpes is small blisters that break open, leaving painful sores that can take 2–6 weeks to heal. A person may mistake a mild case of herpes for a few pimples or ingrown hairs.
Often, a person first feels tingling or itching around their genitals, which can last up to a day. They may also notice the following symptoms:
- a headache
- tiredness or fatigue
- swollen lymph nodes
- muscle pain
Herpes is most contagious when a person has open genital sores, though people can transmit the virus even when there are no sores.
A doctor will usually diagnose genital herpes by asking about a person’s symptoms and examining any lesions that are present. Blood tests and skin scrapings can help diagnose the condition, though these are usually not necessary.
Some symptoms are specific to males and females.
Symptoms of genital herpes in males
Males are more likely to have repeat outbreaks of genital herpes than females. They may notice blisters or sores on the penis, scrotum, or anus, or unusual discharge from the penis.
Symptoms of genital herpes in females
Getting a menstrual period can cause an outbreak of genital herpes.
Also, a person may mistake the symptoms of genital herpes for those of a yeast infection or bladder infection.
How is genital herpes transmitted?
Genital herpes can spread in the following ways:
- vaginal sex, anal sex, or genital contact with someone who has the virus
- receiving oral sex from a partner with a cold sore
- touching a herpes sore, then touching the genitals
- a baby can contract genital herpes during birth if the mother has the virus
People can sexually transmit the virus even if they have no visible symptoms.
It is not possible to contract genital herpes from toilet seats, bedding, swimming pools, or touching other objects. The virus can only spread from human-to-human contact.
How to treat genital herpes
There is no cure for genital herpes. It lays dormant in the body for long periods, then reappears as an outbreak of sores.
However, doctors can prescribe medications that reduce the likelihood of recurring outbreaks. These medicines may also lower the risk of transmitting the virus.
When a person has a genital herpes outbreak, they may be able to promote healing and lower the risk of transmitting the virus by:
- avoiding sexual contact with another person until the sores have healed
- keeping the sores clean and dry
- refraining from touching the sores whenever possible
- washing the hands immediately after touching the sores
- using barrier protection during sexual contact until told otherwise by a doctor
The first herpes outbreak is usually the worst — subsequent outbreaks tend to become less bothersome.
Genital herpes does not typically cause serious health complications. However, it can make a person more vulnerable to contracting HIV.
If a person has genital herpes sores, viruses and bacteria, including HIV, have more opportunity to enter the body. Avoid scratching the sores, as this can lead to bacterial infection.
Also, having HIV can make genital herpes outbreaks more severe.
Avoiding sexual contact, especially when sores are present, is the only sure way to prevent the spread of genital herpes.
Using condoms reduces the risk of transmitting the infection. However, people can contract herpes from the skin around the genitals, so this is not guaranteed to be effective.
Many people have STIs without knowing it. Doctors recommend getting regular checks, especially after a person has had sex with a new partner.
Genital herpes is an STI that a person can transmit through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It is usually caused by the HSV-2 virus, but it can also be caused by HSV-1.
There is no cure for genital herpes, but by taking antiviral medication, a person can reduce the likelihood of outbreaks and the risk of transmitting the virus.
A doctor can help diagnose genital herpes and recommend treatment options.
People can help prevent the transmission of genital herpes by using barrier protection during sex and by taking antiretroviral medication.
Medically reviewed by Jill Seladi-Schulman, Ph.D.
Written by Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA