Conditions InDepth: Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a highly contagious infection that is caused by a virus. Genital herpes causes fluid-filled blisters or sores on the skin of the genitals (areas on or around the vagina or penis). The infection can also cause blisters on the anal opening, on the buttocks or thighs, inside the vagina on the cervix, or in the urinary tract of women and men.

The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two different types of HSV: herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 virus (HSV-2). HSV-2 is usually the cause of genital herpes, but it can also be caused by HSV-1. HSV-1 is the virus that is associated with oral herpes (cold sores on the mouth).

Genital herpes is a very common virus. In the US, 45 million people or one out of every five adolescents and adults, ages 12 and older, are infected with HSV-2.

Transmission of the Virus

HSV is transmitted from skin-to-skin contact, especially in places that are warm and moist. The virus enters your body through a cut or opening in the skin or through mucous membranes—the moist inner lining of the urinary tract (in the vaginal area) or the digestive system that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, and anus. Then the virus stays in the nerve cells of your body. The virus is still there, even if you don’t have any symptoms or signs of genital herpes. Genital herpes is a chronic, life-long infection with symptoms that will come and go (be active and inactive) throughout your life.

Risks Associated With Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is considered a sexually transmitted disease. You can spread the virus by touching, kissing, or having sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Several factors lead to the spread of the HSV virus:

  • Having sexual contact with someone who has an outbreak of the virus.
    • An outbreak means that the sexual partner has visible sores or blisters in the genital area. These sores give off (or shed) some of the virus that can infect the other partner. The virus is most contagious when the sores are visible and open, and producing a discharge (leaking).
  • Having sexual contact with someone who has genital herpes, even if he or she does not have any obvious sores.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Once someone is infected, symptoms begin to appear within 2-20 days. The first outbreak is usually the most severe and lasts the longest.

Early symptoms can last 2-3 weeks and can include:

  • Discomfort (itching, burning, or pain) in the genital or anal area
  • Discharge from the vagina
  • Feeling of pressure in the abdomen

What are the risk factors for genital herpes?
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
How is genital herpes diagnosed?
What are the treatments for genital herpes?
Are there screening tests for genital herpes ?
How can I reduce my risk of genital herpes?
What questions should I ask my doctor?
Where can I get more information about genital herpes?


Frequently asked questions about genital herpes. The National Women’s Health Information Center website. Available at: Accessed July 18, 2005.

Genital herpes fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: . Accessed July 18, 2005.

Genital herpes: the facts. International Herpes Alliance website. Available at: . Accessed July 18, 2005.

Health matters fact sheet: genital herpes. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at:, Accessed July 18, 2005.

Herpes: get the facts. American Social Health Association website. Available at: . Accessed July 18, 2005.

Mindel A, Marks C. Psychological symptoms associated with genital herpes virus infections: epidemiology and approaches to management. CNS Drugs . 2005;19(4):303-312.

Last reviewed August 2008 by David Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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