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The Facts About Genital Herpes

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The Basics of Genital Herpes | Transmission | Treatment and Prevention

The Basics of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). Genital herpes affects both men and women.

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
  • 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 also decreases over time.

Genital herpes is diagnosed with a swab of the blister. If the blister has healed, then a blood tests may be done.


Genital herpes is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact. This can happen herpes virus in it 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 the virus can also be transmitted when symptoms are not present. Some people contract herpes from partners whose symptoms are very 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 alleviate symptoms and reduce 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:

  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)

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 treatable, so contact your doctor and seek out support if you need to.


American Social Health Association


Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



Sex Information and Education Council of Canada



Genital herpes—CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/STDFact-Herpes.htm. Updated February 11, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2013.

Genital herpes. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/genitalHerpes/Pages/default.aspx Updated January 6, 2012. Accessed March 13, 2013.

Herpes genitalis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated February 28, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2013.

Herpes resource center. American Sexual Health Association website. Available at: http://www.ashastd.org/std-sti/Herpes.html. Accessed March 13, 2013.

Kimberlin DW, Rouse DJ. Clinical practice. Genital herpes. N Engl J Med. 2004; 350:1970.

Wald A, Krantz E, Selke S, et al. Knowledge of partners'genital herpes protects against herpes simplex virus type 2 acquisition. J Infect Dis. 2006; 194:42.

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

6/14/2012 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/: 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 March 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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