Genital Herpes Symptoms

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Genital herpes is a common condition affecting around 45 million people in the U.S. The herpes viruses responsible for genital herpes (herpes simplex virus type 2, or HSV-2; and, less commonly, herpes simplex virus type 1 or HSV-1) are transmitted through close personal contact such as sexual contact.

The symptoms of genital herpes vary among people. Most people infected with HSV have no symptoms or have only mild symptoms, but some develop severe symptoms. When symptoms do occur, the infected person usually develops one or more painful blisters in the anal or genital areas that eventually ulcerate and heal over a period of a few weeks.

When a person is first infected with the herpes virus, if symptoms occur, these usually develop within the first two weeks after infection. These symptoms of an initial infection can include:

These early symptoms can appear before any skin lesions develop. Skin lesions then develop within a few days of the initial symptoms and are characterized by raised, red, painful bumps or blisters at the site of viral infection (often on the penis or vagina). The lesions can also appear on the uterine cervix in women or in the urinary tract in men. Along with these skin lesions, infected persons can experience:

  • fever,

  • swollen lymph nodes,

  • itching,

  • vaginal discharge,

  • muscle aches,

  • pain with urination, and

  • pain or burning in the genital area, buttocks, or thighs.

Genital herpes symptoms eventually go away, but the virus responsible for the symptoms remains in nerve cells in the body throughout life. Outbreaks of genital herpes may occur at any time following the initial infection, and these produce similar skin lesions as seen in the initial infection. While the frequency of outbreaks of genital herpes tends to decrease over a period of years following the infection, some people still have many outbreaks per year. Doctors do not understand exactly why outbreaks occur, but many people report outbreaks at times of illness or psychological stress.

There is no cure for genital herpes, although prescription antiviral medications are available that may shorten or even prevent outbreaks and help prevent transmission of the virus to others.

REFERENCE: Fauci, Anthony S., et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 17th ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008.


Last Editorial Review: 4/1/2010