Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD). A majority of people who have this virus do not have any symptoms. However, even when there are no signs of this disease, herpes may still be spread to the sex partners of the infected person.
What is genital herpes?
It is a type of sexually transmitted disease caused by two kinds of viruses. These viruses are HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1) and HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus type 2).
What is oral herpes?
Usually, oral herpes is caused by HSV-1. It may result in fever blisters or cold sores around or on the mouth. However, a majority of individuals don’t have symptoms. Most individuals who have oral herpes became infected as children or young adults from non-sexual forms of contact with saliva.
Are there any links between oral herpes and genital herpes?
Oral herpes, which is caused by HSV-1, may be spread to the genitals from the mouth via oral sex. That is why HSV-1 causes some genital herpes cases.
Is genital herpes common?
In the US, genital herpes is fairly common – over one out of each six 14-49-year-old individuals has genital herpes.
How is genital herpes spread?
A person gets genital herpes from having oral, anal, or vaginal sex with an individual who has this disease. You can get infected with herpes, if you don’t have it already, by coming into contact with this virus in:
- A herpes sore
- Genital secretions (if a partner is infected with genital herpes) or saliva (if a partner is infected with oral herpes)
- The skin within the oral area if a partner is infected with oral herpes, or skin within the genital area if a partner is infected with genital herpes
Herpes can be contracted from a sex partner who doesn’t have any visible sores or who isn’t aware that she or he is infected. Genital herpes can also be contracted if a sex partner with oral herpes gives you oral sex.
You won’t get herpes from swimming pools, bedding, toilet seats, or from touching objects like towels, soap, or silverware. If you have any more questions about the ways that herpes is spread, you should talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns.
What can I do to lower the chances of getting genital herpes?
The only thing you can do to avoid getting STDs is not having oral, anal, or vaginal sex. If you are a sexually active person, the following things can be done to reduce the risk of you getting genital herpes:
- Use latex condoms properly each time that you have sex
- Have a mutually monogamous long-term relationship with a partner not infected with an STD (a partner who was tested for STDs and showed negative test results)
Be aware that herpes sores do not always occur in areas covered by a latex condom, and the herpes virus may also be shed (released) from parts of the skin without any visible herpes sores. That is why condoms do not fully protect you from getting herpes.
If your partner has genital herpes, you can reduce your risk of obtaining genital herpes when:
- Anti-herpes medication is taken daily by your partner. This is something that should be discussed by your partner and his or her physician
- Avoid having oral, anal, or vaginal sex whenever your partner has any herpes symptoms (i.e., when your partner has an outbreak).
I am pregnant. How can my baby be affected by genital herpes?
If you have genital herpes and are pregnant, it is critical that you have prenatal care visits. Inform your physician if you have been diagnosed in the past with genital herpes or had any symptoms. You should also let your doctor know if you have been exposed at any time to genital herpes. Some research suggests that a genital herpes infection might lead to a miscarriage, or it could increase the chances of our baby being delivered too early.
Although it is possible to pass a herpes infection to your unborn baby, it is more common to pass it to your baby during delivery. Either way, your baby can get a potentially fatal infection (neonatal herpes). During pregnancy, it is critical to avoid getting herpes. If you have genital herpes and are pregnant, towards the ending of your pregnancy, you may be offered anti-herpes medicine. The medicine may reduce your risk of having symptoms or signs of genital herpes when you are delivering our baby. At the delivery time, your doctor should examine you carefully for herpes sores. Usually, a C-section will be performed if you have herpes symptoms at the time of your delivery.
How can I tell if I have genital herpes?
A majority of individuals with genital herpes have only very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. You might notice having mild symptoms, or you might mistake them for a different skin condition like ingrown hair or a pimple. This is why the majority of individuals with the virus are not aware that they have herpes.
Usually, herpes sores appear as one or several blisters around or on the mouth, rectum, or genitals. These blisters break and can leave sores that are painful and can take a week or longer to heal. Sometimes the symptoms are referred to as “having an outbreak.” The very first time that a person has an outbreak, the individual might have flu-like symptoms as well, like swollen glands, body aches, or fever.
People experiencing an initial herpes outbreak may have repeated outbreaks, particularly if they have been infected with HSV-2. Repeated outbreaks are normally less severe and shorter compared to the initial outbreak. Although this infection remains in the person’s body for the rest of their life, over time, the number of outbreaks might decrease.
You should have your doctor examine you if you notice any symptoms or if your partner has STD symptoms or an STD. STD symptoms may include burning when urinating, an unusual sore, smelly genital discharge, or bleeding between periods (for women).
How can my doctor tell if I have herpes?
Your healthcare practitioner might diagnose genital herpes by just looking at your symptoms. A sample can be taken from the sore(s also and tested. Also, a blood test might be used in certain situations to search for herpes antibodies. Talk to your healthcare practitioner and ask them whether you should be tested for STDs such as herpes.
Note: Although a herpes blood test may help to determine whether or not you have a herpes infection, it will be unable to tell how long you have been infected or who gave you your infection.
Is there a cure for herpes?
Herpes has no cures. However, medicines are available that can help to shorten or prevent outbreaks. There is an anti-herpes medication that is taken on a daily basis, which makes it less likely that an infection will be passed to a sex partner.
What will happen if I am not treated?
Genital herpes may cause painful genital sores, and for individuals with suppressed immune systems, it can be severe.
If you touch fluids from your sores or the sores themselves, you could transfer herpes to a different part of your body, like your eyes. You should not touch the fluids or sores to avoid spreading herpes to a different part of your body. But if you do happen to touch the fluids or sores, thoroughly wash your hands immediately to avoid spreading the infection.
For a pregnant woman, there may be problems for the mother and her newborn baby or developing fetus. See the section above for more information.
If I have herpes, can I still have sex?
If you have herpes, it is important to discuss it with your sex partner(s) and tell them that you have the virus and the risks that are involved. You can help to lower the risk by using condoms, but it won’t completely eliminate the risk. Having sores or other herpes symptoms can help to increase the risk of you spreading the disease. You can still end up infecting your sex partners even if you don’t have symptoms.
You might have concerns about the ways that genital herpes can impact your relationships, sex life, and overall health. The best thing to do is to talk with your healthcare practitioner about any concerns you have, but also it is very important for you to recognize that although there is no cure for herpes, you can manage it by taking medication. Using antiviral medicines daily (or daily suppressive therapy) can reduce the risk of you spreading genital herpes to sexual partners. Treatment options should be discussed with your healthcare practitioner. A genital herpes diagnosis might affect the way you feel about a future or current relationship, so understanding how to discuss STDs with sexual partners is very important.
Is there a link between genital herpes and HIV?
Breaks or sores in the skin or the lining of the rectum, vagina, or mouth can be caused by herpes infection. That can provide HIV with a way of entering the body. Even without any visible sores, when you have genital herpes, it increases how many CD4 cells you have (cells targeted by HIV for entering the body) in the lining of your genitals. When an individual has both genital herpes and HIV, there is a higher chance that HIV will spread to the sex partner who is not infected with HIV during sexual contact with a partner’s rectum, vagina, or mouth.
Where can I get additional information on genital herpes?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Division of STD Prevention (DSTDP)
CDC-INFO Contact Center
American Sexual Health Association (ASHA)
P. O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-3827
CDC National Prevention Information Network
P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, Maryland 20849-6003
Content source: Division of STD Prevention, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention