Genital herpes is a highly contagious infection usually spread through intercourse with a person with infected sores, but it also can be passed through oral or anal sex. It may also be spread even when sores are not visible.
Genital herpes can also be transmitted (spread) to a newborn during birth if the mother has an active infection.
Usually, this infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), although herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1), the virus responsible for cold sores, is increasingly the cause of the disease. It can be spread by an infected partner who does not have any sores and may not know he or she has the disease.
How Common Is Genital Herpes?
At least 45 million American adults and adolescents have genital herpes -- that's one out of every four to five people, making it one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. Since the late 1970s, the number of Americans with genital herpes infection has increased 30%, mostly in teens and young adults.
Genital herpes is more common in women than in men.
How Do I Know If I Have Genital Herpes?
Most people infected with genital herpes have very minimal or no signs or symptoms of their disease. The first attack of herpes usually follows this course:
Skin on or near the sex organ becomes inflamed. Skin may burn, itch, or be painful.
Blister-like sores appear on or near the sex organs.
Sores open, scab over, and then heal.
Symptoms that may also be present when the virus first appears include:
Burning when passing urine
The first outbreak of herpes can last for several weeks. After the outbreak, the virus retreats to the nervous system, where it remains inactive until something triggers it to become active again.
Typically, another outbreak can appear weeks or months after the first, but it almost always is less severe and shorter than the first episode. Although the infection can stay in the body indefinitely, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years.
How Often Do Herpes Outbreaks Happen?
How often herpes outbreaks occur depends on the person. On average, people with herpes experience about four outbreaks a year. The first outbreak usually is the most painful and takes the longest to heal. The pain and recovery time often decrease with each outbreak.
What Triggers a Herpes Outbreak?
It depends on the person. Some commonly reported triggers include:
How Is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose genital herpes by visual inspection if the outbreak is typical and by examining a sample from the sore(s). But HSV infections can be difficult to diagnose between outbreaks. Your doctor may check for ulcers internally -- on the cervix in women and the urethra in men. Blood tests that detect HSV-1 or HSV-2 antibodies may be helpful, although the results are not always easy to interpret.