Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes genital herpes. Genital herpes can often be spread by skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.

Some people infected with the virus may have very mild symptoms or no symptoms. They can still able to spread the virus. Other people have pain, itching and sores around the genitals, anus or mouth.

There is no cure for genital herpes. Symptoms often show up again after the first outbreak. Medicine can ease symptoms. It also lowers the risk of infecting others. Condoms can help prevent the spread of a genital herpes infection.

Symptoms

Genital herpes blisters on a penis

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Most people infected with HSV don’t know they have it. They may have no symptoms or have very mild symptoms.

Symptoms start about 2 to 12 days after exposure to the virus. They may include:

Pain or itching around the genitals

Small bumps or blisters around the genitals, anus or mouth

Painful ulcers that form when blisters rupture and ooze or bleed

Scabs that form as the ulcers heal

Painful urination

Discharge from the urethra, the tube that releases urine from the body

Discharge from the vagina

During the first outbreak, you may commonly have flu-like symptoms such as:

Fever

Headache

Body aches

Swollen lymph nodes in the groin

Differences in symptom location

Sores appear where the infection enters the body. You can spread the infection by touching a sore and then rubbing or scratching another area of your body. That includes your fingers or eyes.

Sore can develop on or in the:

Buttocks

Thighs

Rectum

Anus

Mouth

Urethra

Vulva

Vagina

Cervix

Penis

Scrotum

Repeat outbreaks

After the first outbreak of genital herpes, symptoms often appear again. These are called recurrent outbreaks or recurrent episodes.

How often recurrent outbreaks happen varies widely. You’ll usually have the most outbreaks the first year after infection. They may appear less often over time. Your symptoms during recurrent outbreaks usually don’t last as long and aren’t as severe as the first.

You may have warning signs a few hours or days before a new outbreak starts. These are called prodromal symptoms. They include:

Genital pain

Tingling or shooting pain in the legs, hips or buttocks

When to see a doctor

If you suspect you have genital herpes, or any other STI, see your health care provider.

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Causes

Genital herpes is caused by two types of herpes simplex virus. These types include herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) and herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). People with HSV infections can pass along the virus even when they have no visible symptoms.

HSV-2

HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes. The virus can be present:

On blisters and ulcers or the fluid from ulcers

The moist lining or fluids of the mouth

The moist lining or fluids of the vagina or rectum

The virus moves from one person to another during sexual activity.

HSV-1

HSV-1 is a version of the virus that causes cold sores or fever blisters. People may be exposed to HSV-1 as children due to close skin-to-skin contact with someone infected.

A person with HSV-1 in tissues of the mouth can pass the virus to the genitals of a sexual partner during oral sex. The newly caught infection is a genital herpes infection.

Recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes caused by HSV-1 are often less frequent than outbreaks caused by HSV-2.

Neither HSV-1 nor HSV-2 survives well at room temperature. So the virus is not likely to spread through surfaces, such as a faucet handle or a towel. But kissing or sharing a drinking glass or silverware might spread the virus.

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