The Basics of Genital Herpes
Herpes is an STD that comes and goes, meaning there are periods when the virus is not actively causing symptoms. During the time between outbreaks, you can still spead herpes to your sexual partners.
In most cases, symptoms may not appear. In others, they may be mistaken for another kind of skin condition. Here are some common genital herpes symptoms you should be aware of:
- Small, red bumps that appear on or near the genitals, anus, mouth, or thighs
- Sores and blisters
- Pain or burning during urination in both men and women
- Pain or itching in the genital or anal area
If left untreated, the sores and blisters will fade away. This does not mean the virus is gone. People with herpes have repeated cycles of outbreaks. Over time, the outbreaks are shorter in duration and less severe than the first outbreak. The number of outbreaks may also decrease over time.
Genital herpes is diagnosed with a swab of the blister. If the blister has healed, then blood tests may be done.
Genital herpes is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact. This can happen when the herpes virus comes into contact with the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth. For example, if you have a cold sore on your mouth and have oral sex, you can give your partner genital herpes.
Herpes is most contagious during outbreaks, so you should abstain from sex when symptoms are present. Keep in mind that the virus can also be transmitted when symptoms are not present. Some people contract herpes from partners whose symptoms are mild or completely absent, so the person does not know that they are infected. Others become infected from people who do not tell them of their condition.
Pregnant women can transfer genital herpes to their baby, with serious infant health consequences. Herpes also puts the mother at risk for miscarriage and premature birth. Contact your doctor right away if you have been exposed to, have symptoms of, or have a diagnosis of genital herpes.
Treatment and Prevention
Genital herpes is not curable, but there are medications that will help reduce symptoms and the number of outbreaks. Antiviral medications are prescribed by your doctor and are most effective when started at the first sign of symptoms. When taken as suppressive therapy, antiviral medications can reduce the number of outbreaks and decrease the chance that you will spread the virus to your partner. Antiviral medications include:
Your doctor may refer you to a therapist for counseling. Diagnosis of genital herpes can be an emotional experience. Herpes carries with it a social stigma that can be hard to recover from. Therapy may be individual or in a support group. Find the best option that works for you.
The best prevention for STD transmission is to avoid sexual contact. There are other steps you can take to reduce the chances of spreading herpes:
- Have sex in a monogamous relationship.
- Always use condoms. Condoms do not provide 100% protection since they may not cover all lesions.
- Avoid sexual contact during an outbreak.
- Take antiviral medication as prescribed by your doctor.
It is important to note that not everyone with a herpes-infected partner catches the virus. Some people in long-term relationships with an infected partner never do.
Do not avoid doctors or treatment because you feel ashamed. Genital herpes is a controllable condition, so contact your doctor and seek support if you need to.
American Sexual Health Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Sex Information & Education Council of Canada
Genital herpes—CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/STDFact-Herpes.htm. Updated May 19, 2016. Accessed February 1, 2017.
Genital herpes. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114875/Genital-herpes. Updated August 22, 2016. Accessed February 1, 2017.
Herpes & pregnancy. American Sexual Health Association website. Available at: http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/herpes/herpes-and-pregnancy. Accessed February 1, 2017.
6/14/2012 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116271/Neonatal-herpes: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Neonatal herpes simplex virus infection following Jewish ritual circumcisions that included direct orogenital suction—New York City, 2000-2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2012;61:405-409.
Last reviewed February 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 2/1/2017