Genital Herpes Glossary of Terms

You may hear some of the words and terms that follow as you learn about genital herpes. We have chosen some that seem obvious, but have slightly different meanings when used in the context of genital herpes. For example, you may think you know what genitals are, but read the definition.


Antibodies are proteins that circulate in the body. Whenever a person is exposed to a new pathogen (a virus or bacterium), the immune system creates specific antibodies for it. When an antibody bumps into the pathogen, it sends a message to the immune system's "killer" cells, prompting them to attack the invader.


Antiviral drugs are used to treat viral infections, just as antibiotics treat bacterial infections. The main practical difference is that antiviral drugs for genital or oral herpes and many other viruses (HIV, for example) do not kill the virus and wipe out the infection. These antiviral agents slow the virus' reproduction process (called replication), helping to control, not cure, the disease. Antibiotics, however, are usually able to cure bacterial infections completely.

Clinical trial

Clinical trials are scientific studies designed to test whether a new medical treatment is safe and effective. There are four phases of clinical trials. Phase I is a small study that looks at safety only. Phase II looks at safety and efficacy (whether or not it works). Phase III is a large study that's the last step before approval by the FDA, or a similar regulatory agency in other countries. Phase IV monitors the treatment's long-term safety and efficacy after it has been approved for consumers.

Cold sore

This sore appears on the lips or skin close to the lips and is caused by the herpes virus. HSV-1 causes most cold sores. This is also sometimes called a fever blister.

Dental dam

A dental dam is a piece of latex rubber that's designed to be used as a barrier to sexually transmitted diseases. It's placed over the vaginal area or anus during cunnilingus and analingus. A latex glove or condom cut into a square sheet can be used as an alternative.



A virus, such as herpes, is either active or dormant. When active, the virus is replicating and perhaps shedding and causing symptoms. When dormant, it is hiding somewhere in the body, not replicating. HSV-2 usually hides; that is, it escapes attack from the immune system in clusters of nerve tissue near the base of the spine when it is dormant. When it's active, it travels up a nerve to the surface of the skin.

E pisodic therapy

Episodic therapy for genital herpes involves taking antiviral drugs for a few days as soon as the patient feels an outbreak of symptoms coming on (what doctors call "prodromal" symptoms) or within one day after the symptoms appear.

Fever blister

Fever blister is another common name for a cold sore .


Genital herpes affects not only the reproductive organs, but also the anus, perineum (skin between the anus and reproductive organs), and inner thighs, in addition to the penis shaft, foreskin, urethra, glans (head), and scrotum of a man, and the vagina, cervix, labia, clitoris, and urethra of a woman.


HSV stands for herpessimplex virus. There are two types: Type 1 usually infects the mouth and type 2 usually infects the genitals. The two types are referred to as HSV-1 and HSV-2.


Latex rubber comes from a tree. When you're advised to use a latex condom, it means you should not use "lambskin" condoms, which are made from sheep intestines. Latex is a strong, flexible material. It's also a good barrier to most sexually transmitted viruses, because viruses are too big to pass through the microscopic holes in the material. The animal tissue from which some condoms are made has microscopic holes big enough for some of these pathogens to pass through. Condoms made of polyurethane -- a synthetic material -- are a good alternative to latex for people who have a latex allergy.

Mucous membrane

This is tissue that lines a body cavity and contains mucous-secreting glands. The linings of the mouth, the vagina, rectum, and urethra are mucous membranes.


Primary infection

Primary infection is when a virus first enters the body and takes up residence. Some symptoms of primary HSV-2 infection are different from the recurrent symptoms that come later.

Recurrent, Recurrence

Herpes is a recurrent infection. That means the infection never goes away. The symptoms may disappear for a while, but they may come back periodically. Something like the flu, for example, is not a recurrent infection. Once it runs its course, it's gone, and you don't have the flu again until you're infected with another flu virus.

Replicating, Replication

Replication is how a virus reproduces. It simply makes copies of itself. A copy is exactly the same as the original, unless a mutation (a mistake, basically) takes place when the DNA is being copied. In that case it becomes a new kind, or strain, of virus.

Sexual activity, having sex

Sexual activity or "having sex," in reference to sexually transmitted diseases, includes penile-vaginal intercourse and penile-anal intercourse, as well as oral-vaginal (cunnilingus), oral-penile (fellatio), and oral-anal (analingus) stimulation. The definition does not include masturbation, rubbing bodies through clothes, and other things that may be thought of as sexual but don't carry a risk for infection.


The herpes virus "sheds" when it's replicating on the skin's surface. The virus is contagious then, because it can rub off on another person.

Suppressive therapy

Suppressive therapy for genital herpes involves taking antiviral drugs every day to keep viral replication in check and makes the recurrence of symptoms less frequent.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on August 23, 2022


Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Medical Dictionary. American Social Health Association. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. MEDLINEplus Medical Encyclopedia. CDC. Terri Warren, RN, Westover Heights Clinic, Portland, Ore.

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