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What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects the skin or mucus membranes of a person’s mouth or genitals. It is caused by Herpes simplex virus (HSV), which can be spread through secretions from the mouth or genitals during sexual contact.  Herpes causes sores, blisters, or rashes on an infected person’s skin (on the mouth, genitals, and rectum), which can become tender and painful.  Around one in five adults in the United States has genital herpes.  To date, there is no cure.

How is it passed from person to person?

  • Herpes is passed from one person to another during vaginal, oral, and anal sex (performing or receiving).  In general, you can become infected with herpes when your skin, vagina, penis, anus, or mouth comes into contact with someone who already has herpes.
  • Herpes is more commonly transmitted through contact with the skin of an infected person who has visible sores, blisters, or a rash.
  • Someone who has been infected with herpes in the past but has no active herpes sores can still pass the infection on to others through sexual contact (through mouth or genital fluids).

What are the signs and symptoms of genital herpes?

  • The most common symptoms of genital herpes are sores, blisters, and rashes on the skin close to the mouth, genitals, or anus. Before sores appear, an infected person might feel tingling, itching, burning, or pain at the sight on the skin where the sore will appear.
    • Women can experience symptoms on the outer vaginal lips (labia), vagina, cervix, around the anus, and on the thighs or buttocks
    • Men can experience symptoms on the penis, scrotum, around the anus, on the thighs or buttocks
    • Both men and women can experience symptoms on the tongue, mouth, eyes, gums, lips, fingers, and other parts of the body
  • Most of the time, people infected with HSV are unaware of it. Some people with HSV infection never have sores or have very mild symptoms that are often mistaken for insect bites.
  • If signs and symptoms occur during the first outbreak (within two weeks after the virus is transmitted through sexual contact), they are often very pronounced.  Blisters form, which break and make tender sores (or ulcers) that can take two to four weeks to heal.  Additionally, an infected person experiencing sores during the first outbreak could experience flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle ache, and swollen glands.
  •  People diagnosed with a first episode of genital herpes can expect to have typically four or five symptomatic recurrences within a year. Over time, these recurrences may occur less often.

What are the complications of genital herpes?

  • Pregnant women who have an active herpes infection on their genitals or in their birth canal when they deliver may pass the infection to their newborn infant, which can lead to extremely serious conditions for the baby, including brain infection (meningitis, encephalitis), chronic skin infection, severe developmental delays, or death.
  • The highest risk to the baby occurs when a woman becomes infected with HSV during pregnancy and experiences a primary outbreak during the time of delivery. 
  • Women who have a history of herpes but who only have occasional outbreaks rarely transmit the infection to their babies.
  • People with active herpes outbreaks are more likely to contract HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), and HIV- positive people with active herpes outbreaks are more likely to pass HIV to others. 
  • In people with a weakened immune system (such as those with AIDS, undergoing chemotherapy, or taking high doses of cortisone), herpes can cause serious complications in the brain, eyes, esophagus, liver, spinal cord, or lungs.

Am I at risk for contracting genital herpes?
You are more likely to get this STI if you:

  • Have multiple sex partners
  • Do not use a condom during sex
  • Have a partner with a past history of any STIs
  • Have sex a partner and do not know his or her sexual/STI history
  • Have vaginal, oral, or anal sex with a partner who has visible signs and symptoms of genital herpes

How can I get tested for genital herpes?

  • Health care providers can diagnose genital herpes by visual inspection if the patient is experiencing an outbreak, and by taking a sample from the sore(s) and testing it in a laboratory.
  • HSV infections can be diagnosed between outbreaks by the use of a blood test. Blood tests, which detect antibodies to HSV infection, can be helpful, although the results are not always clear-cut.

What is the treatment for genital herpes?

  • There is no known cure for genital herpes.
  • Although expensive, antiviral medications (like acyclovir) can shorten and prevent outbreaks during the period of time the person takes the medication. 
  • Antiviral medications can reduce the chances of transmitting herpes to sexual partners.

How can I prevent myself from getting genital herpes?

  • Having a monogamous sexual partner and knowing his or her STI status and sexual history reduces the risk of contracting herpes.
  • Using a latex condom consistently and correctly during all types of sex reduces the risk of herpes transmission.
  • Any symptoms of an outbreak should be a signal to stop having sex.
  • If a person has been diagnosed and treated for herpes, he or she should contact all recent sex partners so they can see a health care provider.
  • Abstinence from sexual intercourse is the surest way to avoid herpes infection.

To get more information, contact
National Herpes Hotline (919) 361-8488

If you have any other questions on HIV/AIDS or any sexually transmitted disease, please call the Virginia HIV, STD, and Viral Hepatitis Hotline: (800) 533 - 4148.

Last Updated: 10-04-2012

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