What is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). The most common form of genital herpes is caused by HSV-2.

One in six Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 has genital HSV-2 infection. Genital HSV-2 infection is more common in women than in men, and transmission from male to female partner is more likely than from female to male.

Many infected individuals show little or no symptoms of infections. Visible symptoms include small blisters around the rectum or genitals. When the blisters break, they leave sores that take two to four weeks to heal. The blisters can appear again weeks or months later, but this second outbreak is usually less severe and shorter in duration.

HSV-1 and HSV-2 spreads from the sores the viruses cause. The virus can also be released between outbreaks from skin that does not appear to have sores.

While HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, it also causes infections on the mouth and lips (often called “cold sores” or “fever blisters”). HSV-1 infection of the genitals can be caused by oral-genital or genital-genital contact with a person who has HSV-1 infection.

The herpes virus can remain in the body indefinitely, but outbreaks tend to decrease over time.

Symptoms of genetial herpes

Painful blisters or sores in the genital or anal area. Other symptoms include fever, muscle aches or swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms usually appear within two to seven days after exposure.

Diagnosis of genital herpes

Genital herpes can be diagnosed through visual inspection during an outbreak or by obtaining a sample from a sore for laboratory testing. Blood tests can detect antibodies from the HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection, but results are not always exact.

Treatment of genital herpes

While there is no cure for genital herpes, medication can reduce pain and speed the healing process. Those with frequent outbreaks can take medication daily to help prevent outward symptoms.

Other concerns with genital herpes

If one or more partners in a couple have genital herpes, sexual contact should be avoided during outbreaks.

Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a sexually transmitted disease and become pregnant. Genital HSV can lead to potentially fatal infections in infants. If a woman has active genital herpes when she gives birth, a cesarean delivery is usually performed to avoid infecting the baby. However, infection from an infected woman to her baby is rare.

How to prevent herpes

The best way to prevent herpes is to abstain from sex or to be in a long-term, mutually exclusive relationship with someone who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.

Herpes can occur in both female and male genital areas that are protected or covered by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. However, consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes.