What Does Genital Herpes Look Like?

Reviewed on 9/18/2020

What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital Herpes
Symptoms of genital herpes include blisters in the genital area, blisters on the mouth or lips, fever Headache, pain in the joints, swollen lymph nodes in the groin.

Genital herpes is a viral infection that may cause blisters and open sores on the genitals. It is caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

It is estimated that more than one of every six people in the U.S. aged 14 to 49 years have genital herpes.

What Are Symptoms of Genital Herpes?

Some people with herpes have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. Other people may develop symptoms within a few weeks of being infected with the herpes virus.

Symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • Blisters in the genital area
    • In women, this area includes the vagina, anus, buttocks, or thighs
    • Sores inside the vagina may be difficult to see
    • Women are more likely to have difficulty or pain urinating 
    • In men, this area includes the penis, scrotum, anus, buttocks, or thighs
    • Sores may look like pimples or fluid-filled blisters that are red, white, or yellow
    • Blisters may become painful open sores, which ooze and develop a yellow-colored crust as they heal
    • There may be a single sore or a cluster of sores
  • Blisters on the mouth or lips
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Pain in the joints
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin

The first time symptoms occur is usually the worst, and symptoms may take 2 to 3 weeks to heal. After that, people may have outbreaks that are usually not as severe as the first occurrence and do not last as long.

Outbreaks may occur monthly or more frequently, or only once or twice a year. Some people can tell when an outbreak is about to happen because they feel itching, tingling, or pain beforehand, but other people have no symptoms. Herpes outbreaks tend to occur less often as people age.

What Causes Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) passed from person to person during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. 

People who give oral sex to people with genital herpes can get cold sores in their mouths.

Genital herpes spreads more easily when a person has blisters and open sores, though it is also possible to spread the virus when no symptoms are present. 

Certain triggers can make genital herpes outbreaks more likely to occur, such as:

  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Recent fever
  • Physical injury 
  • Sunlight
  • Menstrual periods
  • Surgery

How Is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?

Genital herpes is diagnosed with a physical exam and can often be diagnosed just by looking at the sores. 

If blisters or sores are present on the genitals a doctor can order tests to look for herpes:

  • A sample of cells or fluid from a sore is sent to a lab
  • If there are no symptoms present, a blood sample may be taken to check for herpes antibodies
    • A herpes blood test cannot determine who gave you the infection or how long you have been infected


Is genital herpes contagious? See Answer

What Is the Treatment for Genital Herpes?

There is no cure for genital herpes, but the virus usually causes the most symptoms during the first few years. After that, it causes mild to no symptoms. 

Antiviral medicines may be recommended to help reduce and prevent symptoms of genital herpes and speed up the healing of an outbreak, such as:

Home remedies to help reduce the pain of genital herpes during an outbreak include:

  • Use a portable bath ("Sitz bath") or your bathtub and sit in warm water for about 20 minutes. Avoid bubble baths.
  • Keep the genital area clean and dry.
  • Avoid tight clothing.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may help with the pain. 

How Do You Prevent Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, such as through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. The best way to avoid getting herpes is to avoid contact with another person’s mouth or genitals. Other than that, practicing safe sex is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Practicing safe sex includes:

  • Telling your sex partner you have herpes
  • Using a condom every time you have sex
    • Condoms may not fully protect against getting herpes
    • Not all herpes sores occur in areas covered by a latex condom
    • Herpes virus can be shed from areas of the skin without a visible herpes sore
  • Avoiding sex when you have symptoms
  • Avoiding oral sex if you have blisters or open sores (in the genital area or around your mouth)
  • Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who is not infected with herpes reduces your risk of contracting the virus

Taking antiviral medicine every day may also reduce the risk of spreading the virus. 

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Reviewed on 9/18/2020