What is Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is a very common and highly contagious infection usually spread through sex. Most
cases of genital herpes are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Herpes simplex virus
type 1 (HSV-1) is more often the cause of cold sores but can also be a cause of genital herpes. There
is no cure for herpes.
In America, genital herpes affects 1 out of 6 people ages 14-49. Though, most people with genital
herpes have not been diagnosed, are not aware and do not experience any symptoms or very mild
- Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
- Genital herpes is very similar to the herpes that appear on the hands and face ('cold sores'), but is
found on or around the penis, anus or vagina.
- There are two types of herpes virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause genital herpes. The first
episode of infection (primary) with genital herpes is often quite severe. There are blisters and inflammation at
the site of infection and the sufferer may feel generally unwell. It is common to have symptoms of burning when
- After the first episode of infection with HSV the virus enters into a dormant phase in the nerve, which
supplies feeling to the area where infection occurred.
- The dormant virus reactivates from time to time to cause recurrences.
- Some people get symptoms warning them that a recurrence is about to occur, such as itching, tingling or
pain in the genital area; blisters or sores may then develop. These tend to be less severe than the symptoms that
occurred at the time of the first episode of infection.
- From time to time the virus may reactivate without causing any symptoms of infection at all.
Who gets Genital Herpes?
Anyone who has sex can get genital herpes. You can get genital herpes from skin-to-skin contact with
the infected area when performing or receiving vaginal, penis, anus and oral sex. The people most at
risk are those having unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. not using condoms), especially those with
more than one sexual partner and those who change sexual partners.
How do you get infected with Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is spread by direct contact with the infectious virus, by unprotected vaginal,
penis or anus sex. Also, by oral sex, sharing of sex toys or genital contact with someone who
gets cold sores.
- Genital herpes and cold sores are both very infectious when an infected person has blisters or sores.
- It is possible for an infected person to transmit the virus when they have no symptoms of infection. The
risk of this happening is probably reduced by using condoms.
What Are the Symptoms of Genital Herpes?
The first symptoms of genital herpes infection can include spots or red bumps around the genital area
that causes blisters, burning or itching around the genitals. The small blisters burst open to leave raw,
painful sores which gradually crust over, forming new skin as they heal over, within a few weeks. The
blisters and sores may also be accompanied by flu-like symptoms with fever and swollen lymph nodes.
Some people may not notice or have any symptoms, but the HSV infection can still be passed on. Then
again, after first becoming infected you might notice symptoms after a few days to a couple of weeks or
months to even years.
Any of the following symptoms of a genital HSV infection can occur in a man or a woman:
- Cracked, raw, or red areas around your genitals without pain, itching, or tingling
- Itching or tingling around your genitals or your anal region
- Small blisters that break open and cause painful sores. These may be on or around your genitals (penis or
vagina) anus, thighs, or bottom area. More rarely, blisters may occur inside the urethra -- the
tube urine passes through on its way out of your body.
- Pain from urine passing over the sores -- this is especially a problem in women.
- Backaches - aches and pains in the lower back and down the legs
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue
How Serious is Genital Herpes
- Genital herpes can be a more serious condition for people with HIV, who need specialist care.
- For most people, genital herpes is not a serious threat to their health. Aside from the discomfort,
a herpes simplex virus infection is more of a psychological stressor.
The majority of people with genital herpes experience mild and infrequent symptoms. Some
people may experience more frequent and severe recurrent episodes.
Pregnant women, although rare, can pass on the herpes infection to their baby.
The risk of transmission is greatest for babies born to a woman with first episode genital herpes
around the time of delivery. Neonatal herpes is potentially life threatening, but this is very rare.
Women with recurrent herpes prior to pregnancy are at very low risk of transmitting the infection
to their babies.