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Genital Herpes

(Herpes, Genital; Herpes Genitalis; Herpes Simplex, Genital)



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

Nucleus factsheet image

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Causes    TOP

The infection is caused by the herpes simplex 2 virus. The herpes simplex 1 virus causes cold sores most often, but it can also cause genital herpes.

The virus can be spread with:

  • 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 they aren’t.


Risk Factors    TOP

The strongest risk factor is having unprotected sex with an infected person.

Other ones are:

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

Symptoms    TOP

Symptoms depend on whether this is a primary or recurrent infection. The virus stays quiet between outbreaks. During this time, you may not have signs you can see, but the virus may still be shedding. This means it can spread during sex.

Primary Infection

Primary infection is when you are first exposed to the virus. You may not have any symptoms or you may feel like you have the flu. You may have fever, muscle aches, and swollen glands. Blisters may appear on the sex organs or other areas.

It may take about two to six weeks for the primary infection to get better.

Recurrent Infection

A recurrent infection happens when the virus is reactivated. The symptoms and how long they last will differ.

Recurrent infections are shorter and less harsh. You will not have as many ulcers. The ones you have will be smaller. The blister or ulcer may have pain, tingling, burning, or itching.


Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. If the doctor sees blisters and ulcers, they will be checked.

The doctor may test:

  • The fluid from an open blister
  • Your blood

Lesions inside the urinary tract, birth canal, or cervix may not be easy to see. Your doctor may do more tests to check these areas.


Treatment    TOP

You will need treatment right away. This lowers the chance that you will spread this to others. It will also help you get better faster. But keep in mind that the virus stays in your body. There is no cure. There are medicines to lower the chance that you will have a recurrent infection.


Antiviral medicines are used to treat this STI. They are used to treat a primary infection or a recurrent infection. If you have a recurrent infection, they are most helpful when you take them as soon as you notice symptoms.

If you have recurrent infections, your doctor may have you take this medicine daily to prevent an outbreak. This is called suppressive therapy.

If you have recurrent infections, your doctor may have you take antiviral medication every day to prevent an outbreak. This is called suppressive therapy.


You will be taught about genital herpes and how to avoid spreading it to sex partners. Your doctor will give you facts about the virus.

Other Treatments    TOP

To manage pain, your doctor may advise that you:

  • Take over the counter pain medicine.
  • Take lukewarm baths.

Treatment for Sex Partners    TOP

It is important that your sex partner be tested and get counseling. If your partner does have an active infection, he or she should also get treatment.


Prevention    TOP

To prevent this infection:

  • Use latex condoms each time you have sex.
  • Do not have oral, anal, or genital sex if your partner has herpes blisters.
  • Do not touch blisters to prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the body.

If you are pregnant and have herpes, tell your doctor. Steps can be taken to help prevent your newborn from getting the infection.


American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

International Herpes Alliance


Health Canada

Sex Information and Education Council of Canada


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2010. MMWR. 2010;59(No. RR-12):1-110.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Seroprevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 among persons aged 14-49 years--United States, 2005-2008. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2010;59(15):456-459.

Genital herpes: lifestyle tips. Healthy Women—National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed August 1, 2018.

Corey L, Bodsworth N, et al. An update on short-course episodic and prevention therapies for herpes genitalis. Herpes. 2007;14:Suppl 1:5A-11A.

Genital herpes. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114875/Genital-herpes . Updated February 19, 2018. Accessed August 1, 2018.

Herpes simplex. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/e---h/herpes-simplex. Accessed August 1, 2018.

6/14/2012 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114875/Genital-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 May 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Beverly Siegal, MD, FACOG
Last Updated: 8/1/2018

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