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Genital Herpes: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Genital Herpes Symptoms

Genital herpes causes blisters on the genitals.

You may feel itchy or tingly around your genitals. This is usually followed by painful, small blisters that pop and leave sores that ooze or bleed. Most people notice symptoms within a few weeks after they catch the virus from someone else. The first time it happens, you may also have a fever, headache, or other flu-like feelings. Some people have few or no symptoms.

How You Do -- and Don't -- Get Herpes

Genital herpes is a common infection spread by sexual contact.

You get herpes by having any kind of sex -- vaginal, oral, or anal -- with someone who's infected. It's so common in the U.S. that 1 in every 5 adults has it. Herpes can be spread during oral sex if you or your partner has a cold sore. Because the virus can't live long outside your body, you can't catch it from something like a toilet seat or towel.

Worried It's Herpes?

Genital herpes is diagnosed with a blood test.

Sometimes people mistake a pimple or ingrown hair for herpes. Your doctor can take a small sample from sores by using a swab test. If you don't have symptoms but think you might have herpes, your doctor can do a blood test. It may take a few days to get your results.

What Causes It?

Herpes simplex-2 (HSV-2) causes genital herpes.

Genital herpes usually comes from the virus called herpes simplex-2 (HSV-2). Its cousin, HSV-1, is what gives you cold sores. You can get HSV-2 from someone whether they have symptoms or not.

How Is Herpes Treated?

Antiviral medication is prescribed to treat genital herpes outbreaks.

Your doctor will prescribe an antiviral medicine. These pills can help you feel better and shorten an outbreak. In the meantime, don't kiss or have any kind of sex with other people. Even if you don't have symptoms, you can still spread the disease.

How to Prevent an Outbreak

Some people need daily antiviral medication to control herpes outbreaks.

Some people only take their medications if they feel the itching and tingling that means an outbreak is coming on -- or when sores show up -- to stop it from getting worse. Your doctor may suggest you take an antiviral every day if you:

  • Have lots of outbreaks
  • Want to prevent more outbreaks
  • Want to lower the risk of spreading it to your partner

Is There a Cure?

Genital herpes is treatable, not curable.

You can treat herpes, but once you get it, you'll always have it. When symptoms show up, it's called having an outbreak. The first is usually the worst. Most people have them on and off for several years, but they get milder and happen less often over time.

How to Avoid Herpes

Use protection and get tested to minimize the risk of contracting genital herpes.

As long as you're sexually active, there's a chance you could get herpes. You'll make it a lot less likely if you use a latex or polyurethane condom or dental dam every time, for every activity. The dam or condom only protects the area it covers. If you don't have herpes, you and your partner should get tested for STDs before sex. If you're both disease-free and aren't having sex with other people, you should be safe.

How to Feel Better During an Outbreak

Warm baths help soothe the pain from genital herpes blisters.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear.
  • Avoid sun or heat that could cause more blisters.
  • Take a warm, soothing bath.
  • Don't use perfumed soaps or douches near your blisters.

What Triggers an Outbreak?

Sun, sickness, and stress can trigger outbreaks.

The herpes virus stays in your body forever, even if you have no symptoms. You may have an outbreak when you're sick, after you've been out in the sun, or when you're stressed out or tired. If you're a woman, you could get one when you start your period.

Sex and Herpes

Tell your partner if you have genital herpes before any type of sexual contact.

You still can have sex if you have genital herpes, but you must tell your partner you have the virus. They need to know so they can get tested. Wear a condom any time you have sex. Never have sex during an outbreak.

Problems With Herpes

Take care to avoid spreading genital herpes to other parts of the body.

People often don't have serious problems from herpes, but there's a chance of them. Wash your hands often, especially during an outbreak. If you touch a blister and rub your eyes, the infection can spread to your eyes. If your eyes are red, swollen, hurt, or are sensitive to light, see your doctor. Treating it can help prevent serious vision problems.

Herpes and Pregnancy

Pregnant moms who have active herpes may be advised to deliver via C-section to protect the baby.

If you're pregnant and have herpes, your doctor may suggest that you have your baby by C-section. Why? During vaginal birth, the herpes virus could spread to your baby, especially if your first outbreak happens around the delivery time. The virus could give your baby rashes, eye problems, or more serious issues. A C-section makes that less likely. Your doctor may also have you take anti-viral medicine as your due date gets closer.

Tips for "'The Talk'"

Plan ahead to envision how you'll talk to your partner about genital herpes.

Getting ready to talk to your partner about herpes? These tips can help you prepare for the conversation. The American Sexual Health Association recommends you pick a time when you won't be interrupted, plan what you want to say ahead of time, and practice what you'll say so you feel confident.

Reviewed by Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH on 10/2/2016

Genital Herpes: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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