One in five Americans has genital herpes, but many don't know it because the symptoms can be mild or even absent. Genital herpes is usually spread by sexual contact and caused by the type 2 herpes virus (HSV-2). However, the type 1 herpes virus (HSV-1), which more commonly causes cold sores, can also infect the genitals -- usually through oral sex.
There's no cure for genital herpes. Once infected, you're infected for life.
Genital herpes most often appears as one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. When these blisters burst they leave the tender sores known as ulcers. The first time a person has a herpes outbreak, the ulcers may take two to four weeks to heal. The next outbreaks may not occur for weeks, months, or even later. When they do, they usually are less severe than the first outbreak. Herpes infection doesn't go away, but the outbreaks tend to become less frequent over time.
Herpes is most often spread from active sores. But you don't have to have a sore to give the virus to another person. Occasionally, an infected person "sheds" infectious virus without obvious signs of an outbreak. That's why it is especially important to get tested -- to help prevent spreading the infection.
If you have been exposed to the genital herpes virus, there are steps you can take to prevent spreading the infection to a sexual partner.
The best way to prevent spread -- short of abstinence -- is to use a condom every time you have intercourse. In addition, some studies indicate that treatment with genital herpes medication may be able to help prevent spread of the infection from partner to partner among monogamous couples.
It's also very important for women to avoid getting a new herpes infection while pregnant. And if a woman is going to have a baby, she should know whether she has genital herpes. It's rare for a mother to give herpes to her newborn -- unless she's having an outbreak of genital herpes during delivery. In this event, a C-section may be necessary.
If you think you may have been exposed to genital herpes via sexual contact, it's a good idea to discuss testing with your doctor.