Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It causes small, painful, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters break open and leave a sore. They can be found on the sex organs, buttocks, or thighs. They can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the mouth, face, or eyes.
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The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus.
The virus can be spread with:
- Sexual or skin to skin contact with someone who has the virus
- Pregnancy or giving birth—an infection can pass from a mother to her child
It is easy for the virus to spread when there are blisters. But it may still spread to others when blisters are not present.
The strongest risk factor is having unprotected sex with an infected person.
Other things that may raise the risk are:
- A high number of sex partners
- Prior STIs
- Starting to have sex at an early age
Most people do not have symptoms. People who do will have painful, itchy blisters around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. There may also be a burning feeling when urinating. The blisters break and leave sores that take about a week to heal. This is called an outbreak.
The first outbreak may also result in flu-like symptoms, such as:
- Muscle aches
- Swollen glands
The outbreaks that follow are usually shorter and less severe. They may also decrease over time.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on any sores you may have. This may be enough to suspect the diagnosis.
Tests may be done to look for signs of the virus. This can be done with:
- A viral culture of fluid from an open blister
- Blood tests
There is no cure. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and reduce the number of outbreaks. This should be done right away to lower the risk of spreading the virus to others. Choices are:
- Supportive care, such as warm baths
- Over the counter pain relievers, such as pain lotions that are applied to the skin
- Antiviral medicines to treat the infection or prevent an outbreak
- Counseling to learn how to avoid spreading the virus to others
A person's sex partner will also need to be tested for the virus.
To lower the risk of this problem:
- Do not have oral, anal, or genital sex.
- Use latex condoms during sex.
- Do not have oral, anal, or genital sex with a person who has herpes blisters.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists http://www.acog.org
International Herpes Alliance http://www.herpesalliance.org
Health Canada https://www.canada.ca
Sex Information and Education Council of Canada http://www.sieccan.org
Genital herpes. Healthy Women—National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. website. Available at: https://www.healthywomen.org/condition/genital-herpes/overview. Accessed October 15, 2020.
Genital herpes. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/genital-herpes . Accessed October 15, 2020.
Herpes simplex: overview. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/herpes-simplex-overview. Accessed October 15, 2020.
Workowski KA, Bolan GA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2015. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2015 Jun 5;64(RR-03):1-137.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Elliot M. Levine, MD, FACOG
- Review Date: 09/2020
- Update Date: 10/15/2020