What Is It?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that causes blisters and skin ulcers in the genital area. It can be caused by either of two types of herpes simplex virus, HSV-1 or HSV-2. HSV-2 is the more common cause.
HSV spreads from person to person through kissing and skin-to-skin contact, as well as through vaginal, oral or anal intercourse. An infected person often transmits the virus when skin blisters or ulcers are visible, but the virus also can be spread when there are no symptoms at all. The virus also can be transmitted by people who are unaware that they are infected.
In a pregnant woman with HSV infection (usually HSV-2), the virus can pass to the baby during delivery, causing infections of the newborn's skin, mouth, lungs or eyes. If the herpes virus spreads through the baby's bloodstream, it can cause serious infections of the brain and other vital organs.
Approximately 45 million people in the United States older than age 12 are infected with HSV-2. Among Americans between the ages of 15 and 45, genital herpes affects approximately one in every four females and one in every five males. In the past two decades, the number of genital herpes infections has increased significantly among Americans, with the most dramatic increases seen in adolescents and young adults.
Most people with an HSV-2 infection have no symptoms. When symptoms appear, they are usually mild and can include:
Itching, burning, soreness and small blisters in the genital area
Small ulcers (skin sores) when the blisters break
Local pain if urine touches the genital ulcers
Enlarged or painful lymph nodes (swollen glands) in the groin
Headache, fever and a generally sick feeling
In some people with genital herpes, cold sores or fever blisters also can erupt around the mouth.
The first episode of herpes symptoms is usually the worst. When symptoms develop, they occur about one week after contact with an infected person. About 40% of infected people never have a second attack. In others, however, symptoms return four to five times per year. In people who have repeated herpes episodes, symptoms are most common after sexual intercourse, after sunbathing, and during times of physical or emotional stress.
In newborns who are infected with herpes during delivery, symptoms usually appear nine to 11 days after birth and can include skin blisters, red eyes and an abnormal eye discharge. If the virus spreads through the baby's bloodstream to the brain, there can be lethargy, irritability and seizures. If the virus spreads to the baby's lungs, the baby may have difficulty breathing and may need to be placed on a ventilator to help with breathing.