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What is genital herpes?
How common is genital
How do people get genital
What are the signs and
symptoms of genital herpes?
What are the
complications of genital herpes?
How is genital herpes
Is there a treatment for
How can herpes be
Where can I get more
Genital herpes is a
sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1
(HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). Most genital herpes is caused by HSV-2. Most
individuals have no or only minimal signs or symptoms from HSV-1 or HSV-2
infection. When signs do occur, they typically appear as one or more blisters
on or around the genitals or rectum. The blisters break, leaving tender ulcers
(sores) that may take two to four weeks to heal the first time they occur.
Typically, another outbreak can appear weeks or months after the first, but it
almost always is less severe and shorter than the first outbreak. Although the
infection can stay in the body indefinitely, the number of outbreaks tends to
decrease over a period of years.
Results of a nationally
representative study show that genital herpes infection is common in the United
States. Nationwide, at least 45 million people ages 12 and older, or one out of
five adolescents and adults, have had genital HSV infection. Between the late
1970s and the early 1990s, the number of Americans with genital herpes
infection increased 30 percent.
Genital HSV-2 infection is more
common in women (approximately one out of four women) than in men (almost one
out of five). This may be due to male-to-female transmissions being more likely
than female-to-male transmission.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be found in and
released from the sores that the viruses cause, but they also are released
between outbreaks from skin that does not appear to be broken or to have a
sore. Generally, a person can only get HSV-2 infection during sexual contact
with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. Transmission can occur from an
infected partner who does not have a visible sore and may not know that he or
she is infected.
HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but
it more commonly causes infections of the mouth and lips, so-called "fever
blisters." HSV-1 infection of the genitals can be caused by oral-genital
or genital-genital contact with a person who has HSV-1 infection. Genital HSV-1
outbreaks recur less regularly than genital HSV-2 outbreaks.
Most people infected with HSV-2 are
not aware of their infection. However, if signs and symptoms occur during the
first outbreak, they can be quite pronounced. The first outbreak usually occurs
within two weeks after the virus is transmitted, and the sores typically heal
within two to four weeks. Other signs and symptoms during the primary episode
may include a second crop of sores, and flu-like symptoms, including fever and
swollen glands. However, most individuals with HSV-2 infection may never have
sores, or they may have very mild signs that they do not even notice or that
they mistake for insect bites or another skin condition.
Most people diagnosed with a first
episode of genital herpes can expect to have several (typically four or five)
outbreaks (symptomatic recurrences) within a year. Over time these recurrences
usually decrease in frequency.
Genital herpes can cause recurrent
painful genital sores in many adults, and herpes infection can be severe in
people with suppressed immune systems. Regardless of severity of symptoms,
genital herpes frequently causes psychological distress in people who know they
In addition, genital HSV can
cause potentially fatal infections in babies. It is important that women
avoid contracting herpes during pregnancy because a first episode during
pregnancy causes a greater risk of transmission to the baby. If a woman has
active genital herpes at delivery, a cesarean delivery is usually performed.
Fortunately, infection of a baby from a woman with herpes infection is rare.
Herpes may play a role in the spread
of HIV, the virus that
causes AIDS. Herpes can make people more susceptible to HIV infection, and it
can make HIV-infected individuals more infectious.
The signs and symptoms associated
with HSV-2 can vary greatly. Health care providers can diagnose genital herpes
by visual inspection if the outbreak is typical, and by taking a sample from
the sore(s) and testing it in a laboratory. HSV infections can be difficult to
diagnose between outbreaks. Blood tests, which detect HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection,
may be helpful, although the results are not always clear-cut.
There is no treatment that can cure
herpes, but antiviral medications can shorten and prevent outbreaks during the
period of time the person takes the medication. In addition, daily suppressive
therapy for symptomatic herpes can reduce transmission to partners.
The surest way to avoid transmission
of sexually transmitted diseases, including genital herpes, is to abstain from
sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a
partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
Genital ulcer diseases can occur in
both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex
condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Correct and consistent use of
latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes only when the infected area
or site of potential exposure is protected. Since a condom may not cover all
infected areas, even correct and consistent use of latex condoms cannot
guarantee protection from genital herpes.
Persons with herpes should abstain
from sexual activity with uninfected partners when lesions or other symptoms of
herpes are present. It is important to know that even if a person does not have
any symptoms he or she can still infect sex partners. Sex partners of infected
persons should be advised that they may become infected. Sex partners can seek
testing to determine if they are infected with HSV. A positive HSV-2 blood test
most likely indicates a genital herpes infection.
Transmitted Diseases - Home Page
Genital Herpes - Topic
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STD information and referrals to STD
In English, en Español
National Herpes Hotline
CDC National Prevention Information
P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, MD 20849-6003
Social Health Association (ASHA)
P. O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-3827
Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines 2002. MMWR
Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, 2002. Atlanta, GA:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, October 2003.
Corey L, Wald A. Genital herpes. In:
Holmes KK, Sparling PF, Mardh P et al (eds). Sexually Transmitted Disease, 3rd
Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 285-312.
Corey L, Wald A, Patel R et al.
Once-daily valacyclovir to reduce the risk of transmission of genital herpes.
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