Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.
Genital herpes can cause pain, itching and sores in your genital area. But you may have no signs or symptoms of genital herpes. If infected, you can be contagious even if you have no visible sores.
There's no cure for genital herpes, but medications can ease symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others. Condoms also can help prevent the spread of a genital herpes infection.
Most people infected with HSV don't know they have it because they don't have any signs or symptoms or because their signs and symptoms are so mild.
When present, symptoms may begin about two to 12 days after exposure to the virus. If you experience symptoms of genital herpes, they may include:
During an initial outbreak, you may have flu-like signs and symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes in your groin, headache, muscle aches and fever.
Sores appear where the infection entered your body. You can spread the infection by touching a sore and then rubbing or scratching another area of your body, including your eyes.
Men and women can develop sores on the:
Women can also develop sores in or on the:
Men can also develop sores in or on the:
Genital herpes is different for each person. The signs and symptoms may recur, off and on, for years. Some people experience numerous episodes each year. For many people, however, the outbreaks are less frequent as time passes.
During a recurrence, shortly before sores appear, you may feel:
However, recurrences are generally less painful than the original outbreak, and sores generally heal more quickly.
If you suspect you have genital herpes — or any other sexually transmitted infection — see your doctor.
Sores associated with genital herpes can be small red bumps, blisters or open sores. Scabs eventually form and the sores heal, but they tend to recur.
Two types of herpes simplex virus infections can cause genital herpes:
Because the virus dies quickly outside of the body, it's nearly impossible to get the infection through contact with toilets, towels or other objects used by an infected person.
Your risk of becoming infected with genital herpes may increase if you:
Complications associated with genital herpes may include:
The suggestions for preventing genital herpes are the same as those for preventing other sexually transmitted infections: Abstain from sexual activity or limit sexual contact to only one person who is infection-free. Short of that, you can:
If you're pregnant and know you have genital herpes, tell your doctor. If you think you might have genital herpes, ask to be tested for it.
Your doctor may recommend that you start taking herpes antiviral medications late in pregnancy to try to prevent an outbreak around the time of delivery. If you're having an outbreak when you go into labor, your doctor will probably suggest a cesarean section to reduce the risk of passing the virus to your baby.
Your doctor usually can diagnose genital herpes based on a physical exam and the results of certain laboratory tests:
There's no cure for genital herpes. Treatment with prescription antiviral medications may:
Antiviral medications used for genital herpes include:
Your doctor may recommend that you take the medicine only when you have symptoms of an outbreak or that you take a certain medication daily, even when you have no signs of an outbreak. These medications are usually well-tolerated, with few side effects.
Finding out that you have genital herpes can cause embarrassment, shame and anger, among other emotions. You may be suspicious or resentful of your partner if you think he or she "gave" you the infection. Or you might fear rejection by your current partner or future partners.
What you're feeling is normal. Here are healthy ways to cope with having genital herpes:
If you think you have genital herpes or other sexually transmitted infection, make an appointment to see your primary care doctor or gynecologist.
Before your appointment, you might want to list answers to the following questions:
Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as: