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Definition

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It causes small, painful, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters break open and leave a sore. They can be found on the sex organs, buttocks, or thighs. They can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the mouth, face, or eyes.

Genital Herpes
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Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus. The virus can be spread through:

  • Sexual or skin to skin contact with someone who has the virus
  • Pregnancy or giving birth—an infection can pass from a mother to her child

It is easy for the virus to spread when there are blisters. But it may still spread to others when blisters are not present.

Risk Factors

The strongest risk factor is having unprotected sex with an infected person. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • A high number of sex partners
  • Prior STIs
  • Starting to have sex at an early age

Symptoms

Most people do not have symptoms. People who do will have painful, itchy blisters around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. There may also be a burning feeling when urinating. The blisters break and leave sores that take about a week to heal. This is called an outbreak. The first outbreak may also result in flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Swollen glands

The outbreaks that follow are usually shorter and less severe. They may also decrease over time.

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on any sores you may have. This may be enough to suspect genital herpes. Blood or fluid from the blisters may be tested for signs of infection.

Treatment

There is no cure. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and reduce the number of outbreaks. Treatment can also lower the risk of spreading the virus to others. Care may include:

  • Antiviral medicines to treat the infection or prevent an outbreak
  • Supportive care, such as warm baths when sores are present
  • Over the counter pain relievers, such as pain lotions that are applied to the skin
  • Counseling to learn how to avoid spreading the virus to others

A person's sex partner will also need to be tested for the virus.

Prevention

To lower the risk of genital herpes:

  • Do not have oral, anal, or genital sex.
  • Use latex condoms during sex.
  • Do not have oral, anal, or genital sex with a person who has herpes blisters.
RESOURCES:

American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
http://www.acog.org

International Herpes Alliance
http://www.herpesalliance.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
http://www.sieccan.org

REFERENCES:

Genital herpes. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/genital-herpes. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Genital herpes. Healthy Women—National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. website. Available at: https://www.healthywomen.org/condition/genital-herpes/overview. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Herpes simplex: overview. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/herpes-simplex-overview. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Workowski KA, Bolan GA; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2015. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2015 Jun 5;64(RR-03):1-137.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Elliot M. Levine, MD, FACOG  Last Updated: 4/27/2021