Genital Herpes: The Basics

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Within a few days, sores (also called lesions) show up where the virus has entered the body, such as on the mouth, penis, or vagina. Sores can also show up on a woman’s cervix, which is the opening to the uterus or womb, or in the urinary passage in men. The sores are small red bumps that may turn into blisters or painful open sores. Over a period of days, the sores become crusted and then heal without scarring.

Other later symptoms of genital herpes may include:

  • Small red bumps on the penis, vagina, or wherever the infection began. These bumps may become blisters or painful open sores that can take up to four weeks to heal.
  • Itching or burning in the genital area
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Feeling pressure or discomfort around your stomach
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Pain when urinating
  • Swollen glands in the genital area

Some people may have no symptoms – but they can still spread herpes! Sometimes only very mild sores appear, but are mistaken for an insect bite or other skin problems. If you have HIV, a genital herpes infection can be worse.

If you have herpes, do not have any sexual activity with someone who does not have herpes when you have sores or other symptoms of herpes. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you can still pass the virus to others.

Can genital herpes come back?

Yes. Herpes symptoms can come and go, but the virus stays in the nerve cells of your body even after all signs of the infection have gone away. In most people, the virus becomes “active” from time to time, creating an outbreak. Some people have herpes virus outbreaks only once or twice. Other people have many outbreaks of herpes each year. Scientists don't know what causes the virus to become active, but the number of outbreaks a person has tends to go down over a period of years. Some women say the virus comes back when they are sick, under stress, out in the sun, or during their period.

How do I know for sure if I have genital herpes?

Doctors can diagnose genital herpes by looking at visible sores if the outbreak is typical, and by taking a sample from the sore for testing in a lab. Herpes can be difficult to diagnose between outbreaks. Blood tests, which detect HSV-1 or HSV-2 antibodies, can help to detect herpes in people without symptoms or during the time between outbreaks.

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