Genital herpes is a common infection caused by the herpes simplex virus, or HSV. It causes painful blisters that break open and form sores.
There are 2 types of HSV. HSV-1 usually infects the lips and mouth. HSV-2 usually infects the genital area. However, you can have infections by either virus in any of these places.
You can get infected with the herpes virus if you touch blisters or sores on the genitals, mouth, or rectal area of someone who is infected. The virus can spread to others by kissing, sharing food or drink, or during sex. You may spread it from one part of your body to another if the virus gets on your hands--for example, after touching a blister then rubbing your eye.
Once you are infected, the herpes virus stays in your body, even after the sores are gone. Most of the time the virus is inactive, but the virus can become active again and cause an outbreak of sores. Repeat outbreaks of genital herpes are particularly common during the first year of infection.
Some people infected with herpes have no symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they usually start within 2 weeks after the virus enters your body. The symptoms of a herpes infection in the genital area may include:
The sores appear first as tiny clear blisters. Usually there are small groups of several blisters, but sometimes there may be just 1 blister. The blisters usually lose their tops quickly. Then they look like small (1/8 inch to 1/4 inch wide) pink or red shallow sores. The blisters may be painful and oozing. They may become covered with a yellowish dried crust.
The symptoms of herpes are usually worst during the first outbreak.
Herpes is very contagious when you have sores. However, you can spread the virus to others even when you don’t have sores or other symptoms.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Infection can be confirmed with lab tests. Cells or liquid from a sore will be tested in the lab for the virus.
Genital herpes cannot be cured. The virus will stay in your body. It will tend to become active during times of stress or if the genital area is injured--for example, from tight or irritating clothing or from sex without enough lubrication. Outbreaks can be unpredictable. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicine to help the symptoms go away more quickly. The infection is still contagious while you are taking this medicine. Your healthcare provider may recommend or prescribe another medicine to lessen pain and itching.
The sores usually start to heal after about 5 to 7 days. They generally go away in 1 to 3 weeks. Sometimes they may last for as long as 6 weeks. The sores rarely leave scars.
Repeat outbreaks of sores tend to be milder than the first outbreak and the sores heal more quickly.
If you get a herpes infection for the first time during the first 3 months of pregnancy, it might cause a miscarriage or problems with the baby. If you get infected for the first time later in the pregnancy, it may cause premature labor and delivery. If you have an active herpes infection during labor and delivery, you could pass the infection to the baby. Your baby could get a serious infection of the liver, brain, or other organs.
If you are pregnant and have had herpes, tell your healthcare provider so that steps can be taken to avoid infecting the baby. Antiviral medicine is a safe medical treatment for infected pregnant women. It can help prevent an active infection that could be passed to your child during birth. However, if you have sores at the time of delivery, antiviral medicine does not keep the infection from being passed to your baby. If you have an active herpes infection when you go into labor, your provider may suggest a C-section to avoid infecting the baby during a vaginal delivery. If you don’t have any sores at the time of labor, you may have a vaginal birth.
Breast-feeding is safe as long as you don’t have sores on or around your breast.
Follow the full treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Be sure to take all of your medicine as prescribed by your provider.
When you have an outbreak of sores:
There are many support groups for people who have herpes. You can get more information by calling the National Sexually Transmitted Disease Hotline at 1-800-227-8922.
To have fewer repeat outbreaks: