Skip to main content

Genital Herpes Simplex

Genital Herpes Simplex

What is herpes? — Herpes is an infection that can cause blisters and open sores on the genital area. Herpes is caused by a virus that is passed from person to person during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Sometimes, people do not know they have herpes because they do not have any symptoms.
Herpes cannot be cured. But the disease usually causes most problems during the first few years. After that, the virus is still there, but it causes few to no symptoms. Even when the virus is active, people with herpes can take medicines to reduce and help prevent symptoms.
What are the symptoms of herpes? — Some people with herpes never have any symptoms. But other people can develop symptoms within a few weeks of being infected with the herpes virus.
Symptoms usually include blisters in the genital area. In women, this area includes the vagina, butt, anus, or thighs. In men, this area includes the penis, scrotum, anus, butt, or thighs. The blisters can become painful open sores, which then crust over as they heal.
Sometimes, people can have other symptoms that include:
Blisters on the mouth or lips
Fever, headache, or pain in the joints
Trouble urinating
The first time you have symptoms is usually the worst, and can last as long as 2 to 3 weeks. After that, symptoms come and go. A return of symptoms is often called an "outbreak." Outbreaks usually include blisters and open sores in the genital area. Outbreaks that happen after the first time are usually not as severe and do not last as long.
Outbreaks might occur every month or more often, or just once or twice a year. Sometimes, people can tell when an outbreak will occur, because they feel itching or pain beforehand. Sometimes they do not know that an outbreak is coming because they have no symptoms. Whatever your pattern is, keep in mind that herpes outbreaks usually become less frequent over time as you get older.
Certain things, called "triggers," can make outbreaks more likely to occur. These include stress, sunlight, menstrual periods, or getting sick.
Is there a test for herpes? — Yes. If you have blisters or sores when your doctor or nurse examines you, they can order a test to look for herpes. There are a few different tests that can do this. For all of them, the doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells or fluid from a sore and sends it to the lab. If you don't have symptoms when your doctor or nurse examines you, they will sometimes take a blood sample. This can show them if you have been exposed to the virus.
Should I see a doctor or nurse? — Yes. You should see your doctor or nurse if you have symptoms of genital herpes.
How is herpes treated? — Your doctor can prescribe different medicines to help reduce symptoms and speed up the healing of an outbreak. These medicines work best when people start them soon after an outbreak starts. You and your doctor should work together to decide which medicine is right for you.
Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better? — Yes. To reduce the pain during an outbreak, you can:
Use a portable bath (such as a "Sitz bath") where you can sit in warm water for about 20 minutes. Your bathtub could also work. Avoid bubble baths.
Keep the genital area clean and dry, and avoid tight clothes.
Take over-the-counter pain medicine such as acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (sample brand names: Advil, Motrin). But avoid aspirin.
You should also let your doctor or nurse know if you are worried or upset about your herpes. He or she can talk with you about your feelings. Plus, you might want to join a support group for people with herpes. You can also call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) STD hotline at 1-800-227-8922 for help.
What if I am pregnant? — If you are pregnant, talk with your doctor. It is possible for a baby to get herpes from its mother during birth, especially if the mother's first outbreak starts near the time of delivery. Talk with your doctor or nurse about things you can do to help prevent this.
Can future outbreaks of symptoms be prevented? — Some people with herpes take a medicine every day to help prevent future outbreaks.
What can I do to prevent spreading herpes to my sex partner? — You are most likely to spread herpes to a sex partner when you have blisters and open sores on your body. But it's also possible to spread herpes to your partner when you do not have any symptoms. That is because herpes can be present on your body without causing any symptoms, like blisters or pain.
Telling your sex partner that you have herpes can be hard. But it can help protect them, since there are ways to lower the risk of spreading the infection. The best ways to do this are:
Using a condom every time you have sex
Not having sex when you have symptoms
Not having oral sex if you have blisters or open sores (in the genital area or around your mouth)
You might also be able to decrease the risk of spreading herpes to your partner by taking an antiviral medicine every day. Your doctor or nurse can talk to you about whether this is an option for you.
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Mar 30, 2020.
Topic 15442 Version 10.0
Release: 28.2.2 - C28.105
© 2020 UpToDate, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.

2 popular Genital Herpes Simplex drugs

New! No Prescription? No problem.

Affordable Online Care is here! Answer a few questions about your concern and receive a treatment plan in as little as 15 minutes, from a board-certified provider, 100% online.

Learn more
Illustration of a prescription hand off from one mobile phone to another