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Genital Herpes​What is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). This lifelong infection can cause painful blisters on the lips/mouth, genitals, vagina or front hole and anus or back hole, and can cause problems for pregnant people and their unborn fetus or newborn baby, such as miscarriage, preterm birth, or neonatal herpes.

Genital herpes is common in the United States. In 2018, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates show there were more than 570,000 new genital herpes infections in the United States among people 14 to 49 years of age. Having a genital herpes infection may increase one's risk of becoming infected with HIV. 

How It Spreads

You can get genital herpes by having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who has the infection. You can also get herpes if you have contact with:

  • A herpes sore

  • Saliva from a partner with an oral herpes infection

  • Genital fluids from a partner with a genital herpes infection

  • Skin in the oral area of a partner with oral herpes

  • Skin in the genital area of a partner with genital herpes

​You also can get genital herpes from a sex partner who does not have a visible sore or is unaware of their infection. It is also possible to get genital herpes if you receive oral sex from a partner with oral herpes.

You will not get herpes from:

  • Toilet seats

  • Bedding

  • Swimming pools

  • Touching objects, such as silverware, soap, or towels

​If you have more questions about herpes, consider discussing your concerns with a health care provider.

Signs and Symptoms

Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms or have very mild symptoms. Mild symptoms may go unnoticed or be mistaken for other skin conditions like a pimple or ingrown hair. Because of this, most people do not know they have a herpes infection.

Herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. This is known as having an “outbreak". The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal. Flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, body aches, or swollen glands) also may occur during the first outbreak.

People who experience an initial outbreak of herpes can have repeated outbreaks, especially if they have HSV-2. However, repeat outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe than the first outbreak. Although genital herpes is a lifelong infection, the number of outbreaks may decrease over time.

Ask a health care provider to examine you if:

  • You notice any symptoms

  • Your partner has an STI or symptoms of an STI

​STI symptoms in general can include an unusual sore, a smelly genital discharge, burning when peeing, or bleeding between periods (if you have a menstrual cycle).


Your health care provider may diagnose genital herpes by simply looking at any sores that are present. Providers can also take a sample from the sore(s) and test it. While blood tests are not commonly used, ​your health care provider might suggest a blood test to help them determine if HSV is causing the sores versus something else.


If you are having sex, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting genital herpes:

  • Avoid touching herpes sores or fluids from the sores

  • Have sex only with a partner(s) who does not have herpes or who is under medical care and on an anti-herpes medicine  for their infection

  • Use condoms*

*Be aware that not all herpes sores occur in areas that a condom can cover. Also, the skin can release the virus (called shedding) from areas that do not have a visible herpes sore. For these reasons, condoms may not fully protect you from getting herpes.

If your sex partner(s) has/have genital herpes, you can lower your risk of getting it if:

  • Your partner takes an anti-herpes medicine every day (your partner should discuss this with their health care provider)

  • You avoid having vaginal, anal, or oral sex when your partner has herpes symptoms (i.e., during an “outbreak").

If you touch a herpes sore or fluids from the sore, you may transfer herpes to another body part like your eyes. Do not touch the sores or fluids to avoid spreading herpes to another part of your body. If you do touch the sores or fluids, quickly wash your hands thoroughly to help avoid spreading the infection.​​


While herpes is not curable, it is important to know that it is manageable with medicine that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. A daily anti-herpes medicine can make it less likely to pass the infection on to your sex partner(s). Talk to a health care provider about your concerns and treatment options.



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