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Conditions InDepth: Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a very common, highly contagious sexually transmitted infection (STI) found in both women and men. It is one of the most commonly reported infectious diseases in the US. It often goes unreported because many people do not know they have it, as symptoms can be mild or mistaken for something else.

Genital herpes is a chronic, lifelong infection with symptoms that come and go throughout life. Left untreated, genital herpes can cause serious complications. It is not curable, but it can be managed.


Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is most often caused by HSV-2 but can also be caused by HSV-1, the version of HSV most often associated with cold sores around the mouth.

The virus can be spread through contact with lesions and bodily fluids including oral or genital secretions. The virus can enter your body through a cut or opening in the skin, or through the moist inner lining of the urinary tract, vaginal area, mouth, anus, or rectum. HSV-2 is very contagious and can spread even when open lesions are not present. HSV-1 can be passed via oral sex if a partner has cold sores on the mouth.

You can be exposed to more than one STI at a time such as HIV and syphilis. Your doctor may test for other STIs if genital herpes is suspected or diagnosed.



2015 Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated January 25, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2018.
Genital herpes. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated November 2, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2018.
Genital herpes. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at:
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Updated February 9, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2018.
Genital herpes—CDC fact sheet (detailed). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated November 17, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2018.
Groves MJ. Genital herpes: a review. Am Fam Physician. 2016;93(11):928-934.
Last reviewed February 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 5/20/15


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