Genital Herpes

What is Genital Herpes?

  • A contagious viral infection transmitted through sexual contact.
  • It is the most common cause of genital ulcers.
  • Genital Herpes occurs worldwide, and is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States.
  • More than 45 million people have Genital Herpes.


  • Acute (initial) symptoms may appear days after exposure to the virus, but may be delayed for weeks or months.
    • The first symptom is a burning, tingling sensation where a sore is forming.
    • A blister quickly develops and will rupture within 24-48 hours.
    • An ulcer or open sore then forms at the site of the blister.
    • The sore will gradually disappear in about two weeks, but may be painful when present.
    • Herpes sores may be single, or may be multiple, covering the entire genital region.

  • Recurrent Herpes is possible, because even though the acute sore will disappear, the virus remains in the body.

    • It may be reactivated by many circumstances (stress, fever, friction, heat, etc.) and sores will reappear at the initial site.
    • Not every person will experience recurrent Herpes.
    • When it is recurrent, sores usually have a shorter course than in the initial stage.

  • Some individuals who have the Herpes virus may not realize it.
  • There may be no symptoms or very mild symptoms, so the person is not aware of the infection.
  • The American Social Health Association estimates that as many as 90% of individuals who have Herpes may not be aware that they have the virus.


  • Genital Herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV).
  • There are two general types of this virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
  • HSV-1 is considered primarily oral.
  • HSV-2 is considered primarily genital.


  • Visual examination by a clinician may provide the diagnosis for genital herpes.
    • However, many Herpes infections have an atypical appearance.

  • A positive diagnosis can be made by a swab test from the sores.

    • The material obtained can be sent for a culture or a DNA test for herpes.

  • There is a blood test that can be used when a person has no visible symptoms but has concerns about having herpes.

    • Blood tests do not actually detect the virus but look for antibodies (the body’s immune response) in the blood.
    • Like any blood test, these tests cannot determine whether the site of infection is oral or genital.
    • However, by using a test that distinguishes between HSV-1 and HSV-2, a fairly accurate assessment can be made since genital herpes is primarily caused by HSV-2.
    • For the most accurate result, it is recommended to wait at least 12-16 weeks from the last possible exposure to herpes before getting an accurate blood test to allow enough time for antibodies to develop.


  • There is no cure for genital herpes, but it can be effectively treated.
  • There are several medications currently being used to treat genital and oral herpes.
  • Treatment is enhanced by keeping the affected area clean and dry.
  • Care should be taken to avoid touching the sores, and sexual activity should be avoided until any sores are completely healed.


  • Transmission can be prevented by avoiding sexual contact, including oral sex, whenever sores or blisters are present on the genitals, lips or mouth.
  • Abstain from sexual activity until the sores have healed and completely disappeared.
  • Herpes may be transmitted even when no symptoms are present.
  • Condoms provide some protection during oral, vaginal and anal sex.
  • Because Herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, this protection is not 100% and herpes could still be transmitted if one partner was infected.
  • Dental dams can also provide protection during oral sex performed on the vulva or anus.
  • For more information on Herpes transmission during oral sex, please visit the Sexual Health page on Oral Sex.


  • There are no long term health consequences of having the virus.
  • The adult human is seldom seriously affected by genital herpes because it can be effectively treated.
  • The virus may, however, be fatal to newborn infants.
  • Herpes can be transmitted to a baby if the mother is having an outbreak during delivery.

Adapted from:

Sexual Health Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) Contraception