What is genital herpes?

Herpes is a common infection caused by herpes virus. The virus causing herpes is of two types, namely, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

Genital herpes is a type of sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused mostly by HSV-2. Although HSV-1 can cause herpes rash in the genital area, it is less frequent compared with HSV-2. HSV-1 spreads by skin-to-skin contact, whereas HSV-2 spreads by sexual contact. Genital herpes rash is present on or around the genitals (vulva, vagina, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, butt and inner thighs). When rash is in or on around the lips, mouth and throat, it is called oral herpes.

Genital herpes is contagious and can spread through skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal and oral sex performed without a condom or dental dam. Transmission usually occurs when a person with infection does not have visible lesions. Thus, they may infect others without even knowing that they have the infection. The infection can affect any part of the body, although it is most commonly seen on the genitals, mouth or anus. Once infected, the virus may stay in the affected person for life because the infection cannot be cured. Blisters may heal with time within two to three weeks, but the virus lies dormant inside the nerves causing occasional flare-ups.

Herpes virus dies quickly outside the body. You cannot get herpes from holding hands, hugging, coughing, sneezing or sitting on the toilet seat.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Most people with genital herpes exhibit no symptoms or very mild symptoms that may be overlooked or mistaken for another skin condition. Herpes lesions mainly appear as one or more fluid-filled rash (vesicles) or small blisters. The rash typically occurs on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. Symptoms may occur after a period of 2 to 12 days after the infection. The rash is painful and may be associated with a burning or itching sensation. Symptoms are usually worst in the first episode. Recurrent outbreaks may be shorter and milder than the initial one. Most people with herpes get fewer outbreaks as time goes on, and some people stop having them altogether.

The most typical symptoms of genital herpes are a group of itchy or painful blisters on the vagina, vulva, cervix (the neck of the uterus), penis, buttocks, anus or inner side of the thighs. These blisters may burst to form sores. Other symptoms of herpes include:


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How can I prevent getting genital herpes?

Genital herpes spreads from sexual skin-to-skin contact with an infected person through vaginal, anal and oral sex. The best way to avoid genital herpes is avoiding any contact with another person’s mouth and genitals. Practice safe sex by using protection such as condoms and dental dams to lower infection risk. Condoms lower your risk considerably but may not provide 100 percent protection because herpes virus can survive on areas not protected by condoms such as the buttocks, cheeks, upper thighs, labia and scrotum.

Although herpes spreads more easily during an outbreak, the infection can spread even when there are no symptoms. Hence, use condoms if you or your partner have herpes infection despite no symptoms. You must, however, avoid having sex (oral, anal or vaginal) during an outbreak because sores may be on various sites not covered by a condom. The outbreak may be preceded by symptoms such as burning, itching or a tingling feeling.

If you are infected, ask your doctor about herpes medications because they lower your risks of spreading herpes. Avoid touching the sore because this can spread the infection to other body parts. Wash your hands with soap and water if you have touched a sore accidentally or while applying medications. Avoid kissing if you have a sore in your mouth or on your lips. Having herpes also increases your risk of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and vice versa. Hence, always follow safe sex practices such as wearing a condom if you have herpes or another STDs.

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Medically Reviewed on 12/6/2021
WHO: "Herpes simplex virus"

CDC: "STD Facts - Genital Herpes"