What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a contagious sexually transmitted infection (STI). People with genital herpes develop painful blisters on their genitals. Blisters sometimes form on or inside the anus. These infections can clear up and then return months or years later.

The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes genital herpes. HSV spreads through vaginal, oral and anal sex. You can also get HSV from kissing or close (skin-to-skin) contact with someone who has open sores.

What are the types of herpes viruses?

Herpes is a group of contagious viruses. All of these viruses cause blisters and sores. Some of the more common herpes viruses include:

  • Type 1: HSV-1, or oral herpes, causes cold sores to form on lips, gums, tongue and inside the mouth. It can cause genital herpes in some cases This type usually spreads through saliva when you kiss someone with open herpes sores. You can also get HSV-1 by sharing items like toothbrushes, lipsticks or eating utensils.
  • Type 2: HSV-2 causes genital herpes.
  • Herpes zoster: This virus causes chickenpox and shingles.

How common is genital herpes?

Around 1 in 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes.

Who might get genital herpes?

Genital herpes affects teens and adults of all genders and races. It can spread if you have multiple sexual partners and don’t use condoms.

Women are more at risk. Delicate vaginal tissue can tear, making it easier for the infection to get in. Black women are especially vulnerable. An estimated 1 in 2 African-American women between the ages of 14 and 49 is infected with HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes.

Where do genital herpes form?

Sores from genital herpes can infect the:

  • Buttocks, anus and inner thighs.
  • Female reproductive system, including the vagina, vulva, labia (vaginal lips) and cervix (tissue that connects the vagina and uterus).
  • Lips, mouth, tongue, cheeks and roof of the mouth.
  • Penis and testicles (parts of the male reproductive system).

Is genital herpes contagious?

The virus that causes genital herpes is highly contagious. You can give genital herpes to others or get it from someone who’s infected. Even when a person doesn’t have blisters or symptoms, it’s still possible to infect another person with the herpes virus.

Can you get genital herpes from someone who has cold sores?

Yes. The different types of herpes viruses can infect other parts of the body. You can get herpes sores on your genitals if you receive oral sex from someone who has open sores from HSV-1 (oral herpes).

What causes genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection or STI, also called a sexually transmitted disease or STD. A contagious virus causes the infection.

How does genital herpes spread?

The herpes virus that causes genital herpes spreads through saliva, semen and vaginal secretions. It’s possible to get genital herpes from someone who doesn’t have visible symptoms. You can have the infection, not know it and infect someone else.

Research has found it is possible for genital herpes to spread through:

  • Intercourse, including anal, vaginal-penile and vaginal-vaginal.
  • Oral sex (giving or receiving) with someone who’s infected.
  • Skin-to-skin contact without ejaculation.
  • Touching open sores, including while breastfeeding.
  • Childbirth by a mother who has an active infection.

You can’t get genital herpes from objects like toilet seats. But you could pass genital herpes through shared sex toys. (To stay safe, wash sex toys before and after using them, and don’t share them. If you do, protect them with a condom.)

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Some people never develop symptoms. They don’t know they have the herpes virus that causes genital herpes. They may unknowingly infect others. You can have the herpes virus for years and not have symptoms, so it’s hard to know when or from whom you got it.

When symptoms occur, they’re usually worse during the first outbreak or flare-up (called primary herpes). Symptoms typically appear within two to 20 days after infection. Active symptoms may last up to four weeks.

You may experience:

Can I get genital herpes more than once?

There isn’t a cure for HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes. Infections can come back (called a recurrence). Recurring symptoms are usually milder than the first outbreak. Symptoms don’t last as long with later outbreaks. Some people may only have one or two outbreaks during their lifetime. Others may have as many as four or five outbreaks a year.

After infection, the virus moves from skin cells to nerve cells. In the nerve cells, it becomes inactive (latent). Certain things may reactivate the virus, such as:

  • Illness or fever.
  • Anything that suppresses the immune system.
  • Menstruation.
  • Stress.
  • Sun exposure.
  • Surgery.

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