Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that causes blisters and ulcers in the genital area.

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which also causes cold sores around the mouth. Most genital herpes cases are caused by HSV type 2, while cold sores are most often caused by HSV type 1. However, either can cause oral or genital infection. Genital herpes infection is spread through sexual contact with someone who has the infection. Usually the virus is transmitted through the sores. It can be spread to others when sores are not present, but usually just before sores develop. 

Symptoms

Some people, even when first infected with genital herpes, don't have any symptoms. For most people, symptoms occur within 10 days of having sex with an infected person.

Symptoms can last up to three weeks. Even after the initial outbreak of sores heals, infected people carry the virus for the rest of their lives, with new sores developing from time to time. It's typical to have a few outbreaks a year, although the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over time.

Medication

There is no permanent cure for herpes. Once you become infected with the virus, it stays in your body. Your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir, valacycolvir, or famciclovir, which can reduce the length and pain of herpes outbreaks. Antiviral medication may also be prescribed on a daily basis to prevent recurrences.

Of particular concern for women with genital herpes is that it can be spread to a baby during delivery, if a woman has an active infection at that time. It is important that women avoid contracting herpes during pregnancy, because a first episode during pregnancy creates a greater risk of transmission to the newborn. Genital herpes can cause potentially fatal infections in babies if the mother has active genital herpes (shedding the virus) at the time of delivery. Cesarean delivery is usually recommended for active genital herpes. Fortunately, the infection of an infant is rare among women with genital herpes.

Protection

Protection from genital herpes includes abstaining from sex when symptoms are present, and practicing safe sex between outbreaks. Safe sex requires prior planning and communication between partners. The following recommendations can help:

  • Talk with your partner. Before having sex, you should have a discussion regarding STD status.

  • Use protection every time you have sex, including oral sex, until you're sure your partner isn't infected with an STD.

  • A condom is the best protection against STDs. Latex and polyurethane condoms help protect against STDs by forming a barrier that keeps fluids from transferring to the other person. Condoms should be in place from the beginning to the end of any kind of intercourse, and a new one should be used every time you have sex.

Medical Reviewer: Mukamal, Kenneth MD Last Annual Review Date: 2010-01-04T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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A person with genital herpes can only infect sex partners during a herpes outbreak.