Genital herpes is a viral infection that, as the name implies, is usually found in and around the genitals. There are actually two herpes viruses, herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), which is extremely common and usually found in the mouth (it’s the one that often results in cold sores), and herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2), which is more commonly found to be genital herpes and can cause blisters (although it can also be present when there are no visible signs).
Both viruses have no “cure” and if you catch either, you have it forever. But there is treatment for symptoms and ways to reduce the risk of passing herpes on to a sexual partner.
Because it is “incurable” many people who live with herpes feel stigmatized, and think they cannot (or don’t deserve to) have a healthy and happy sex life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
According to the CDC, at least 45 million people in the United States have genital herpes infection. Since the 1970s genital herpes infections were steadily rising but a recent study by the CDC found that this trend is currently reversing and new genital herpes infections are down. The authors of the study suggested that the decrease in genital herpes infections may reflect a reduction in promiscuity among adolescents and may be a result of “more careful partner selection, condom use, and/or choosing oral sex over vaginal sex.”
How It’s Transmitted:
Genital herpes is transmitted through physical contact with someone with herpes. You may be more likely to be infected if you come into contact with a visible sore, but infection can also occur even if the person with herpes has no visible signs. You do not need to exchange body fluids to transmit genital herpes. In some cases, a person can get an outbreak in two places at the same time -- if you touch someone's infected genitals and then touch your mouth, too.
Symptoms of Genital Herpes:
Most of the time people infected with herpes show no signs of the infection. Signs of herpes in the mouth include cold sores and blisters that usually hurt. Signs of genital herpes include similar blisters (usually one or two) on or around the genitals and/or rectum. The blisters break, leaving tender sores that may take two to four weeks to heal the first time they occur. Over time, the frequency of outbreaks will diminish, but the virus does not disappear.
Other signs and symptoms during an initial outbreak may include a second crop of sores, and flu-like symptoms, including fever and swollen glands. But most people with HSV-2 infection may never have sores, or they may experience mild signs that they don't notice or that they mistake for insect bites or another skin condition.
How it’s Prevented:
Herpes can be transmitted through physical contact with an infected individual. Infection is more likely when the person with genital herpes has visible sores or blisters, but infection can occur even if the person with herpes does not have any visible signs.
Prevention includes avoiding contact with sores if you are having an outbreak (even if you only have cold sores on your mouth). There are also medications which treat the symptoms of genital herpes and may reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to a partner.
Diagnosis and Treatment:
Sometimes, when the symptoms are “typical” (meaning there are visible sores) a health care provider can diagnose herpes by visually inspecting the sores. They may also take a sample from the sore to test, or if you are currently not experiencing any symptoms, they may draw blood to test for HSV infection.
While there is no cure, there are different medications that have been found to be effective in managing genital herpes. These treatments can shorten and prevent outbreaks during the period of time the person takes the medication, and some daily treatments can reduce the risk of transmission to partners.
Centers for Disease Control Xu, F., Sternberg, M.R., Kottiri, B.J. et. al. “Trends in Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 Seroprevalence in the United States.” The Journal of the American Medical Association Vol. 296 No. 8 (2006): 964-973.
Xu, F., Sternberg, M.R., Kottiri, B.J. et. al. “Trends in Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 Seroprevalence in the United States.” The Journal of the American Medical Association Vol. 296 No. 8 (2006): 964-973.