Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is an STD caused by a herpes simplex virus. There are two strains of herpes virus which can infect the genitals: Type 1 (HSV-1) and Type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is more commonly found in the mouth (oral herpes, also called cold sores or fever blisters). HSV-2 is more commonly found in the genitals. However, both strains of the virus can infect either the mouth or genitals.

Genital herpes is fairly prevalent, with 17% of the US general population testing positive for HSV-2 infection in a 2006 study. It is not curable but for most people who are infected, it does not present any serious health risk. It may pose more serious risks for people who have compromised immune systems, pregnant women, and those at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS.


The herpes virus is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. Herpes can infect both the mouth and the genitals and can be passed from mouth to mouth, genitals to mouth, and genitals to genitals.

Herpes is often transmitted during sex or other genital-to-genital contact. Condoms can reduce the risk of transmission, but herpes may be still transmitted during sex with a condom, as the infected areas of skin may not be covered by the condom.

Herpes can also be transmitted during oral sex. If the infected person has herpes on the mouth (cold sores) and performs oral sex on another person, the herpes virus can be passed on and infect the genitals. Herpes may also be transmitted from the genitals of an infected person to the mouth of a partner performing oral sex.

Infected people may transmit herpes when they have no visible sores. Herpes is most contagious just before an outbreak happens. Some carriers of herpes feel a tingling just before an outbreak, but some have no idea an outbreak is coming on.


There are only two ways to completely prevent contracting herpes. The surest way is to abstain from sex, including oral sex, entirely. You can also avoid contracting herpes if you engage in sex and/or oral sex only with a monogamous partner who has been tested and shown to be free of the virus.

Sexual contact with people who have visible blisters or lesions in the genital area should be avoided. However, you can still get herpes from an infected person even if they do not have visible sores.

Using a condom can reduce the risk of herpes transmission. Female condoms may be more effective at preventing herpes transmission because they cover more of the genital area. However, no condom can prevent transmission entirely, because herpes may be present in the skin not covered by the condom.


Many people have few or no symptoms of either an HSV-1 or an HSV-2 infection and may not be aware that they are infected. When symptoms do occur they typically appear as blisters on or around the genitals or the rectum. The blisters can range in size and severity, from very small and hardly noticeable, to quite large and very painful. The blisters generally last from two to four weeks and may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms. People who experience an initial outbreak typically have four to five additional outbreaks during the first year of infection. Outbreaks typically decrease in frequency over time.


If there is a visible sore, a doctor or healthcare provider can do a physical examination and/or perform a swab of the sore for laboratory testing. If there are no visible sores, it is possible to do a blood test for HSV-2. A positive result on a blood test most likely indicates an infection with genital herpes.


Genital herpes is not curable. People who have been infected can take antiviral medication which can shorten and prevent outbreaks, as well as reducing the likelihood that they will pass herpes to sexual partners. Many people with herpes find that stress management techniques are an effective way to minimize the frequency and severity of outbreaks.

People with herpes should avoid having sex during an outbreak to help to prevent spreading the infection. If a person can sense an outbreak coming on (sometimes with a tingling sensation), sex should be avoided at that time as well as the virus is highly contagious just before an outbreak. Condoms can also help prevent transmission, although it is still possible to transmit herpes through the skin not covered by the condom.

People who are infected with genital herpes should pay special attention to safer sex practices, because herpes can make people more susceptible to HIV infection if they have contact with a person who is HIV positive. Using a latex condom during sex and avoiding exchange of bodily fluids, include vaginal fluid and semen, can help reduce the risk of transmission.

For More Information: 

The CDC STD fact sheets are a good source of current, accurate information about STDs, as well as the American Social Health Association.

This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. If you have any symptoms that you suspect may indicate an STD or other infection, please consult a doctor or medical professional. A good resource for STD testing, treatment and family planning services is
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