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Genital Herpes: The Basics

Read this QA from the National Women's Health Information Center to learn the basics of genital herpes.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the herpes simplex viruses (HSV) type 1 and type 2. Most genital herpes is caused by HSV type 2.

Most people have no or minimal symptoms from HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection. When symptoms do occur, they usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. The blisters break, leaving ulcers or tender sores that may take up to four weeks to heal. Typically, another outbreak can appear weeks or months later.

Although the infection can stay in the body forever, the number of outbreaks usually decreases over a period of years. You can pass genital herpes to someone else even when you experience no symptoms.

How common is genital herpes?

About 45 million Americans, age 12 and older have genital herpes. It’s estimated that up to one million people become infected each year. Genital Herpes (HSV-2) is more common in women than men.

How can I get genital herpes?

Herpes is a virus that can be passed through sexual contact. You can get genital herpes by having sex with someone who has open sores and when someone has no sores. However, herpes is most contagious when a person has open sores. People with herpes should not have sexual activity when sores or other symptoms of herpes are present. HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but it more commonly causes infections of the mouth and lips or “fever blisters.” Condoms can lower the chances of getting herpes. Along with condoms, Valtrex ®, a drug used to treat herpes, can help lower the chances of passing the virus during vaginal sex.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

The symptoms of genital herpes vary from person to person. Some people have severe symptoms, such as many painful sores, while others have mild symptoms. An initial outbreak of genital herpes usually brings about symptoms within two weeks of having sexual contact with an infected person and can last from two to three weeks. The early symptoms can include:

  • An itching or burning feeling in the genital or anal area
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area
  • Vaginal discharge
  • A feeling of pressure in the area below the stomach

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