Q: What is genital herpes?
A: Genital herpes is a common, sexually transmitted disease that is caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2).  Most genital herpes infections are caused by HSV-2, and many people who are infected with the herpes virus experience no or minimal signs and symptoms. This is one reason why the virus is extremely widespread. People can be a carrier of the disease and transmit the virus to others even when they have never had any symptoms of an infection themselves. However, when signs or symptoms do occur, they will usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. The blisters will then break, leaving tender ulcer-like open sores that are usually grouped together in clusters . People with the herpes virus may have recurrent outbreaks after their first episode. These outbreaks can appear weeks or months later, but are typically less severe and shorter than the first outbreak.

Q: How common is genital herpes?
A: Genital herpes is a common infection in the United States. Approxiamately 50 million Americans are currently infected with genital herpes, and there are about 1 million new infections each year. The number of Americans with genital herpes continues to increase because as many as 80-90% of infected people don’t recognize symptoms they have or don’t have symptoms at all, so they end up unknowingly passing the virus along to others. Genital herpes is more common in women than in men.

Q: How do people get genital herpes?
A: Genital herpes is spread by direct contact with an infected person, typically through sexual intercourse or oral sex. However, any type of skin-to-skin contact is capable of spreading the virus. The herpes virus is most contagious when a person has open sores, but transmission can also occur from an infected partner who does not have visible sores and may not know that he or she is infected. People who have genital herpes should refrain from sexual activity when sores or other symptoms of herpes are present.

Q: What are the signs and symptoms of genital herpes?
A: An initial outbreak of genital herpes will usually appear within two weeks of exposure to the virus, while symptoms of the outbreak can last up to two-to-four weeks. Signs and symptoms of a genital herpes outbreak will vary from person to person. Some people may experience more severe symptoms like painful sores while other people may only have mild symptoms.  Some signs and symptoms of a genital herpes outbreak are:

  • Itching or burning in the genital area
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area
  • Swollen glands
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever
  • Small red bumps on the penis, vagina or wherever the infection began.

Many people with a genital herpes infection may never experience any of these signs or symptoms. Some may also experience signs or symptoms that are so mild, they may be mistaken for insect bites or another skin condition. It is important to remember that even if people have not symptoms, they can still pass the herpes virus.

Q: How is genital herpes diagnosed?
A: If you are experiencing an outbreak, your physician will typically be able to diagnose genital herpes by visual inspection of the sore.  They will also usually sample the lesion and send it to a laboratory to have the diagnosis confirmed. Herpes infections can be difficult to diagnosis between outbreaks or in people with no symptoms. In these situations, a blood test that detects HSV antibodies, will be able to detect the herpes virus.