Genital herpes is a common infection caused by a virus. The virus is called the herpes simplex virus, or HSV. It causes painful blisters that break open and form sores.
There are 2 types of HSV, type 1 and type 2. 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 virus if you touch broken blisters or sores on the genitals, mouth, or rectal area of someone who is infected. The virus can spread to others by kissing or 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.
Once you are infected, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. Most of the time the virus is inactive, which means it is staying in certain cells in the body and not causing symptoms. However, the virus may become active and cause sores again. The sores may come back often. Outbreaks of sores may occur with physical stress--for example, if you wear tight clothing, have sex without enough lubrication, or have another illness. Emotional stress or menstruation may also cause an outbreak. Many people with herpes have recurrent infections.
Herpes is very contagious when you have sores. The virus may also spread to others even when you don’t have symptoms.
Some people infected with herpes have no symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they usually occur within 2 weeks after the virus enters your body. The symptoms of a herpes simplex infection in the genital area may include:
The sores appear first as tiny clear blisters. Usually they occur in groups of several blisters, but sometimes there may be just one blister. The blisters usually lose their thin 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 worst during the first outbreak.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms 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. You may have blood tests to see if you have had a herpes infection before.
Genital herpes cannot be completely cured. The virus will stay in your body. It will tend to become active in times of stress, but outbreaks can be unpredictable. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicine such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir to relieve your symptoms more quickly. The infection will still be very contagious as long as you have sores, but the medicine will shorten the amount of time you are contagious. If you are pregnant, discuss the use of these medicines with your provider.
Pain medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve pain and fever. Sitting in a bathtub of warm water 2 or 3 times a day may also help soothe the pain.
A herpes infection for the first time during the first 3 months of pregnancy might cause a miscarriage or problems with the baby. If you get a herpes infection for the first time later in the pregnancy, it may cause premature labor and delivery. If you have an active herpes infection when your baby is born, you could pass the infection to the baby. It could cause serious problems for the baby.
If you are pregnant and have had herpes, tell your provider so steps can be taken to avoid infecting the baby. Antiviral medicine, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir, 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 the baby. If you have an active herpes infection when you go into labor, your provider may suggest a cesarean delivery (C-section) to avoid infecting the baby.
Breast-feeding is safe as long as there are no sores on or around the breast.
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.
The virus stays in your body and you may get more sores. Repeat outbreaks of sores tend to be milder than the first outbreak and the sores heal more quickly.
There are many herpes counseling groups that give support to people who have herpes. You can get more information by calling the National Sexually Transmitted Disease Hotline at 1-800-227-8922.
You may have fewer recurrences if: