Genital herpes is a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease. Genital herpes is common, affecting both men and women. Features of genital herpes include pain, itching and sores in your genital area. The cause of genital herpes is a strain of herpes simplex virus (HSV), which enters your body through small breaks in your skin or mucous membranes. Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. There’s no cure for this recurrent infection, which may cause embarrassment and emotional distress.
Two types of herpes simplex virus infections can cause genital herpes:
- HSV type 1 (HSV-1). This is the type that usually causes cold sores or fever blisters around your mouth, though it can be spread to your genital area during oral sex.
- HSV type 2 (HSV-2). This is the type that commonly causes genital herpes. The virus spreads through sexual contact and skin-to-skin contact. HSV-2 is very common and highly contagious whether or not you have an open sore. However, in many people the infection causes no recognized signs or symptoms and can still be spread to a sexual partner.
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.
The suggestions for preventing genital herpes are the same as those for preventing other sexually transmitted diseases. The key is to avoid being infected with HSV, which is highly contagious while lesions are present. The best way to prevent infection is to abstain from sexual activity or to limit sexual contact to only one person who is infection-free. Short of that, you can:
- Use, or have your partner use, a latex condom during each sexual contact.
- Limit the number of sex partners.
- Avoid intercourse if either partner has an outbreak of herpes in the genital area or anywhere else.
The majority of people who’ve been infected with HSV never know they have the disease because they have no signs or symptoms. The signs and symptoms of HSV can be so mild they go unnoticed. The first outbreak is generally the worst, and some people never experience a second outbreak. Other people, however, can experience outbreaks as long as 40 years after the initial outbreak.
When present, genital herpes symptoms may include:
- Small, red bumps, blisters (vesicles) or open sores (ulcers) in the genital, anal and nearby areas
- Pain or itching around your genital area, buttocks or inner thighs
The initial symptom of genital herpes usually is pain or itching, beginning within a few weeks after exposure to an infected sexual partner. After several days, small, red bumps may appear. They then rupture, becoming ulcers that ooze or bleed. Eventually, scabs form and the ulcers heal.
In women, sores can erupt in the vaginal area, external genitals, buttocks, anus or cervix. In men, sores can appear on the penis, scrotum, buttocks, anus or thighs or inside the urethra, the channel between the bladder and the penis.
While you have ulcers, it may be painful to urinate. You may also experience pain and tenderness in your genital area until the infection clears. During an initial outbreak, you may have flu-like signs and symptoms, such as headache, muscle aches and fever, as well as swollen lymph nodes in your groin.
Genital herpes is different for each person. The signs and symptoms may recur for years. Some people experience numerous episodes each year. For many people, however, the outbreaks are less frequent as time passes. Various factors may trigger outbreaks, including:
- Immune system suppression, from medications such as steroids or chemotherapy, or due to infections, such as HIV/AIDS
- Friction, such as that caused by vigorous sexual intercourse
In some cases, the infection can be active and contagious even when lesions aren’t present.
Doctors usually can diagnose herpes by taking a tissue scraping or culture of the blisters or early ulcers for examination in the laboratory. A blood test can also detect a herpes infection. Because people with herpes commonly have other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS, your doctor will likely examine you for these diseases as well. If you suspect that you previously had a herpes outbreak, a blood test can confirm past exposure to HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection.
There’s no cure for genital herpes. However, genital herpes treatment includes oral prescription antiviral medications, including acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex), to help heal the sores sooner and reduce the frequency of relapses. If taken daily, these medications may also reduce the chance you’ll infect your partner with the herpes virus.