Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that’s usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV2), although it also can be caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1), which normally causes cold sores around the mouth.
In some cases, genital herpes causes blisters and pain in the genital area, but in others, it doesn’t cause any symptoms, so someone who is infected could unknowingly pass it on to others. Sometimes people who have genital herpes only have one outbreak. Others have many outbreaks, which are less painful and shorter than the first episode.
There’s no cure for herpes. Once someone has been infected with the herpes virus, it stays in the body. Medications can alleviate the discomfort of outbreaks and limit or sometimes prevent them. But it’s better to prevent a herpes infection altogether. Anyone having sex (oral, anal, or vaginal) should take precautions against STDs and get screened for them regularly.
Symptoms of herpes outbreaks typically begin with pain, tenderness, or itching in the genital area and also might include fever and headache. Bumps and blisters may appear on the vagina, penis, scrotum, anus, thigh, or buttocks. Blisters soon open to form painful sores that can last up to 3 weeks.
Other symptoms may include: pain or a burning sensation during urination; muscle aches; and tender, swollen glands in the groin area. After the first herpes infection, the virus can lie dormant without causing any symptoms. But the virus might reactivate later, leading to sores that usually don’t last as long as those during the first outbreak. The virus tends to reactivate following some type of stress, like a cold, an infection, hormone changes, menstrual periods, or even before a big test at school.
After the herpes blisters disappear, a person may think the virus has gone away — but it’s actually hiding in the body. Both HSV1 and HSV2 can stay hidden away in the body until the next herpes outbreak, when the virus reactivates itself and the sores return.
Herpes is contagious and can be passed from person to person through any form of unprotected sex. This can occur even when there are no sores or blisters present. So people who are infected can unknowingly spread the infection to someone else.
To treat a genital herpes outbreak, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine in the form of an ointment or pills. These medications can’t cure HSV2, but they can help make a person feel better and shorten the duration of outbreaks or prevent them.
People who know they carry the herpes virus also can take medication daily as suppressive therapy. Suppressive therapy can decrease the number of (and sometimes prevent) outbreaks and also can lessen the chance the virus will be passed on to another person during sex.
If someone is being treated for herpes, any sexual partners also should be tested and treated for any diagnosed STDs.
Because herpes is spread through sexual contact, the best way to prevent it is to abstain from having sex. Sexual contact with more than one partner or with someone who has more than one partner further increases the risk of contracting any STD.
When properly and consistently used, condoms decrease the risk of STDs. Latex condoms provide greater protection than natural-membrane condoms. The female condom, made of polyurethane, is also considered effective against STDs.
Using douche can actually increase a female’s risk of contracting STDs because it can change the natural flora (healthy bacteria) of the vagina and may flush STD pathogens higher into the genital tract.
A teen who is being treated for herpes also should be tested for other STDs, and should have time alone with the doctor to openly discuss issues like sexual activity. Not all teens will be comfortable talking with parents about these issues. But it’s important to encourage them to talk to a trusted adult who can provide the facts.
Because many STDs might not cause obvious symptoms, teens often don’t know when they’re infected. It’s important for all teens who have had sex to get screened regularly for STDs so that they don’t lead to other more serious health problems.
If your teen is thinking of becoming sexually active or already has started having sex, it’s important to discuss it. Make sure your teen knows how STDs can be spread (during anal, oral, or vaginal sex) and that these infections often don’t have symptoms, so a partner might have an STD without knowing it.
It can be difficult to talk about STDs, but just as with any other medical issue, teens need this information to stay safe and healthy. Provide the facts, and let your child know where you stand.
It’s also important that all teens have regular full physical exams — which can include screening for STDs. Your teen may want to see a gynecologist or a specialist in adolescent medicine to talk about sexual health issues. Community health organizations and sexual counseling centers in your local area also may be able to offer some guidance.
Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: March 2013