Skip to Content
Home > Health Information > Health Library > Genital Herpes
Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The infection can be bothersome.
Most people never have symptoms, or the symptoms are so mild that people don't know that they are infected. But in some people, the infection causes occasional outbreaks of itchy and painful sores in the genital area.
After the first outbreak, the herpes virus stays in the nerve cells below the skin and becomes inactive. It usually becomes active again from time to time, traveling back up to the skin and causing more sores. Things like stress, illness, a new sex partner, or menstruation may trigger a new outbreak. As time goes on, the outbreaks happen less often, heal faster, and don't hurt as much.
Genital herpes is caused by a virus—either the herpes simplex virus type 1 or the herpes simplex virus type 2. Either virus can cause sores on the lips (cold sores) and sores on the genitals. Type 1 more often causes cold sores, while type 2 more often causes genital sores.
Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Most people never have any symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms are so mild that people may not notice them or recognize them as a sign of herpes. For people who do notice their first infection, it generally appears about 2 to 14 days after they were exposed to genital herpes.
Some people have outbreaks of itchy and painful blisters on the penis or around the opening of the vagina. The blisters break open and turn into oozing, shallow sores that take up to 3 weeks to heal. Sometimes people, especially women, also have flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, and muscle aches. They may also notice an abnormal discharge and pain when they urinate.
Genital herpes infections can be severe in people who have impaired immune systems, such as people with HIV.
Your doctor may diagnose genital herpes by examining you. He or she may ask you questions about your symptoms and your risk factors, which are things that make you more likely to get an infection.
If this is your first outbreak, your doctor may take a sample of tissue from the sore for testing. Testing can help the doctor be sure that you have herpes. You may also have a blood test.
Although there is no cure, medicine can relieve pain and itching and help sores heal faster. If you have a lot of outbreaks, you may take medicine every day to limit the number of outbreaks.
After the first outbreak, some people have just a few more outbreaks over their lifetime, while others may have 4 to 6 outbreaks a year. Usually the number of outbreaks decreases after a few years.
Treatment works best if it is started as soon as possible after the start of an outbreak. This is especially true for outbreaks that come back again and again.
Finding out that you have herpes may cause you to feel bad about yourself or about sex. Counseling or a support group may help you feel better.
The only sure way to keep from getting genital herpes—or any other sexually transmitted infection (STI)—is to not have sex. If you do have sex, practice safer sex.
Taking medicine for herpes may lower the number of outbreaks you have and can also prevent an episode from getting worse. It also lower the chances that you will infect your partner.
If you are pregnant, you should take extra care to avoid getting infected. You could pass the infection to your baby during delivery, which can cause serious problems for your newborn. If you have an outbreak near your due date, you probably will need to have your baby by cesarean section. If your genital herpes outbreaks return again and again, your doctor may talk to you about medicines that can help prevent an outbreak during pregnancy.
Genital herpes can be caused by either the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 or HSV-2 can cause sores on the lips (cold sores) and sores on the genitals. HSV-1 more often causes cold sores. HSV-2 more often causes genital sores.
You get infected when the virus enters your body through a break in the skin or through moist areas (mucous membranes) such as the mouth, anus, and vagina.
Even very small breaks in the skin allow the virus to infect the body. So herpes can be spread to or from the genitals, anus, or mouth during sexual activities or through any direct contact with herpes sores.
You are most likely to spread herpes when you have a herpes sore or blister. But many people have time periods (a week before and a week after an outbreak) when they can still spread the virus even though they don't have symptoms.
And some people spread the infection because they don't realize that they have a herpes sore. Or they may have different symptoms, such as painful urination, that they don't realize are part of an outbreak.
Most people never have any symptoms or have ones that are so mild they don't recognize them. But some people have painful and bothersome symptoms.
Sometimes the symptoms are confused with other common problems, like yeast infections or vaginosis.
The first herpes outbreak tends to last the longest and be the most severe. Symptoms of the first outbreak may include:
Symptoms of later outbreaks are usually limited to blisters, sores, and swollen lymph nodes. The blisters may take up to three weeks to heal.
When genital herpes symptoms appear, it's usually 2 to 14 days after a person is exposed to the virus.
And sometimes people get their first symptoms months or even years after being infected.
The herpes virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. After the first outbreak, it becomes inactive. Then, in most people, it gets active again from time to time, causing blisters and sores.
Some people have many outbreaks each year, while others have only a few or none at all. People who have symptoms average 5 outbreaks a year during the first few years. Most have fewer outbreaks after that.
People report that certain things may trigger outbreaks, such as:
About half of the people who have repeated outbreaks can feel one coming a few hours to a couple of days before it happens. They may feel tingling, burning, itching, numbness, tenderness, or pain where the blisters are about to appear.
People who have an impaired immune system are more likely to have longer and/or more severe outbreaks of genital herpes than people whose immune systems are healthy.
Although it's rare, genital herpes can cause other health problems—some of them serious—if the virus travels to other parts of the body.
In rare cases, a newborn is infected with the herpes virus during delivery. Because their immune systems aren't fully developed, newborns with herpes infection can have serious health problems affecting many body systems. It may take up to 3 weeks after a newborn is infected before he or she becomes ill.
If the mother has a genital herpes blister or sore at the time of labor and delivery, a cesarean section is usually done. Cesarean section may be recommended if a woman has tingling or pain suggesting an impending outbreak.
Things that increase your risk of getting genital herpes include:
Having herpes, especially if you have open sores, also increases your risk for becoming infected with HIV if you are exposed to HIV.
Any child with genital herpes needs to be evaluated by a doctor to see if it is the result of sexual abuse. For more information, see the topic Child Abuse and Neglect.
If you haven't been diagnosed with genital herpes, call your doctor if you have any of the following:
If you have been diagnosed with genital herpes, call your doctor if you are having frequent outbreaks or if you are unable to pass urine or are constipated.
If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, or if you think you have genital herpes, tell your doctor.
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. If you have only occasional outbreaks of genital herpes and are comfortable with home treatment, watchful waiting may be all you need.
Health professionals who can diagnose genital herpes include:
Treatment may require a referral to a specialist, such as:
Your doctor may be able to diagnose genital herpes from your medical history and a physical exam, especially if the herpes sores are typical in appearance. Your doctor may ask you the following questions:
If this is your first outbreak of suspected genital herpes, further testing may be done to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment can't cure genital herpes. But it can provide relief from the discomfort of herpes sores and can speed up healing.
Treatment works best if it is started as soon as possible after an outbreak begins. This is especially true for outbreaks that come back again and again.
You can take steps to help keep from getting genital herpes—or any other sexually transmitted infection. You can also take steps to keep from giving herpes to your sex partner(s).
Preventing a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is easier than treating an infection after it occurs.
For more information, see the topic Safer Sex.
Using condoms lowers your chances of getting or spreading herpes and other STIs, even if you are already using another birth control method to prevent pregnancy.
Condoms must be in place before the start of sexual contact. Use condoms with a new partner until you are certain that he or she doesn't have an STI. You can use either male condoms or female condoms.
Don't have sex, even with condoms, while you're having herpes symptoms.
Taking daily valacyclovir, an antiviral medicine, can prevent spread of genital herpes to your sexual partner even when you do not have an active outbreak.
A woman who gets genital herpes while she is pregnant could pass the infection to her baby during delivery. Herpes can make newborns seriously ill.
If you are pregnant, follow these steps:
Antiviral medicine can be used safely in pregnancy to reduce the risk of an outbreak at the time of delivery. This lower risk, in turn, makes it less likely that delivery by cesarean section will be needed.
If you are having a genital herpes outbreak, wash your hands after using the bathroom or having any contact with blisters or sores. This is especially important for people who are caring for babies.
To reduce discomfort from herpes sores:
Ask your doctor if you can take nonprescription medicines, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil). They may reduce the pain and fever from genital herpes.
To lower the risk of recurrent outbreaks, reduce or avoid things that trigger outbreaks, such as fatigue, stress, overexposure to sun, and irritation of the genital area.
Finding out that you have genital herpes may cause you to have negative thoughts or feelings about yourself or about sex, such as:
A counselor or support groups for people with herpes may be helpful.
Antiviral medicines are the recommended treatment for genital herpes. They can relieve the pain and discomfort of blisters and sores and speed healing.
These medicines also decrease the number of days you can spread the virus (are contagious).
Antiviral medicines work best when they are taken as soon as symptoms are noticed. For that reason, people with herpes should keep a supply of the medicine on hand.
If you have 6 or more outbreaks a year or have severe outbreaks, you may benefit from taking antiviral medicine every day. It may reduce the number of outbreaks by about 1 or 2 episodes a year.
If you take antiviral medicine every day, you may want to talk to your doctor about not taking the medicine for a short period each year. This can show whether your outbreaks are starting to occur less frequently. Then you can decide whether to keep taking the medicine.
People with impaired immune systems may be more likely to:
Other Works Consulted
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2007, reaffirmed 2009). Management of herpes in pregnancy. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 82. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 109(6): 1489–1498.
Cernik C, et al. (2008). The treatment of herpes simplex infections: An evidence-based review. Archives of Internal Medicine, 168(11): 1137–1144.
Johnston C, et al. (2010). Genital herpes. In SA Morse et al., eds., Atlas of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, 4th ed., pp. 169–185. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Current as of:
October 11, 2018
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Sarah Marshall MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineKevin C. Kiley MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Current as of:
October 11, 2018
Medical Review:Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Kevin C. Kiley MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2019 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
See important information from Billings Clinic on Non-discrimination and Interpreter Services.
Billings Clinic is proud to be an equal opportunity/affirmative action (EOE/AA) e-verify employer.