What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). There's no cure for genital herpes, but medicines can help control the infection.

What Are STDs?

STDs (also called sexually transmitted infections or STIs) are infections that spread through sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) or close sexual contact.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Genital Herpes?

Most people with genital herpes don't have any symptoms. They may not even know they are infected.

Some people with genital herpes can have "outbreaks" of sores in the genital and anal area. (Genitals are the sexual or reproductive organs that are on the outside of the body.) The sores heal within a few weeks. Outbreaks can be brought on by stress, illness, being overly tired, or being in sunlight. Women can have outbreaks when they get their periods.

The first outbreak often is the most severe. Outbreaks usually become less severe over time.

What Causes Genital Herpes?

Two viruses cause genital herpes:

  • herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)
  • herpes simples virus type 2 (HSV-2)

HSV-1 is the virus that causes cold sores around the mouth. It can cause genital herpes when it spreads through oral sex. But most of the time, genital herpes is caused by HSV-2.

How Do People Get Genital Herpes?

People can get infected with genital herpes when:

  • They have vaginal or anal sex with someone with genital herpes (even if there are no sores).
  • They receive oral sex from a partner who has oral herpes (cold sores).
  • They touch a herpes sore and then touch their own genitals.
  • Their genitals touch the skin in the genital area of someone who is infected (even if there are no sores).

Genital herpes can spread even if there are no sores because the virus is still in the body. The virus sometimes "sheds" in the skin near the genitals. When the virus is shedding, it can infect another person.

How Is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?

To find out if someone has genital herpes, health care providers do tests on:

  • fluid from a sore
  • blood (if no sores are present)

People with genital herpes need to tell recent, current, and future sex partners about their infection. Because someone may never have symptoms or may not have symptoms for months to years after infection, a current partner may not be the source of the infection.

How Is Genital Herpes Treated?

There is no cure for genital herpes. But health care providers can prescribe medicine to help:

  • stop outbreaks or make them happen less often and be less severe if they do happen
  • reduce the risk of spreading genital herpes to others

Can Genital Herpes Be Prevented?

The only way to prevent genital herpes and other STDs is to not have sex (oral, vaginal, or anal). If someone decides to have sex, using a latex condom every time can prevent most STDs.

But condoms can't always prevent the spread of genital herpes. This is because the virus may be in the skin near the genitals (and not covered by a condom).

Looking Ahead

Genital herpes is a lifelong condition, but there are ways to manage it. If your teen has genital herpes, you can help him or her learn to live with the infection. Talk to your teen about:

  • taking medicines to stop outbreaks or make them less frequent and less severe
  • learning how to reduce the risk of spreading genital herpes by taking medicines, always using a condom during sex, and avoiding sex during outbreaks
  • talking to partners before starting a sexual relationship

Teens who continue to be sexually active should get tested for STDs every year or more often if recommended by their health care provider.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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