Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This STI causes herpetic sores, which are painful blisters (fluid-filled bumps) that can break open and ooze fluid.

Two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) cause genital herpes:

  • HSV-1. This type usually causes cold sores, but it can also cause genital herpes.
  • HSV-2. This type usually causes genital herpes, but it can also cause cold sores.

The World Health Organization stated that in 2016, about 3.7 billion people under age 50 had HSV-1. In the same year, around 491 million people ages 15 to 49 had HSV-2.

The viruses enter the body through skin abrasions or mucous membranes. Mucous membranes are the thin layers of tissue that line the openings of your body. They can be found in your nose, mouth, and genitals.

Once the viruses are inside, they incorporate themselves into your cells. Viruses tend to multiply or adapt to their environments very easily, which makes treating them difficult.

HSV-1 or HSV-2 can be found in bodily fluids, including:

The appearance of blisters is known as an outbreak. On average, a first outbreak will appear 4 days after contracting the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, it can take as little as 2 days, or as much as 12 days or more, to appear.

General symptoms for those with a penis include blisters on the:

General symptoms for those with a vagina include blisters around or near the:

  • vagina
  • anus
  • buttocks

General symptoms for anyone include the following:

  • Blisters may appear in the mouth and on the lips, face, and anywhere else that came into contact with areas of infection.
  • The area that has contracted the condition often starts to itch, or tingle, before blisters actually appear.
  • The blisters may become ulcerated (open sores) and ooze fluid.
  • A crust may appear over the sores within a week of the outbreak.
  • Your lymph glands may become swollen. Lymph glands fight infection and inflammation in the body.
  • You may have headaches, body aches, and fever.

General symptoms for a baby born with herpes (contracted through a vaginal delivery) may include ulcers on the face, body, and genitals.

Babies who are born with genital herpes can develop very severe complications and experience:

  • blindness
  • brain damage
  • death

It’s very important that you tell your doctor if you contract genital herpes and are pregnant.

They will take precautions to prevent the virus from being transmitted to your baby during delivery. If you have herpes blisters along your birth canal, they may opt to deliver your baby via cesarean rather than a routine vaginal delivery.

The CDC doesn’t recommend getting tested for herpes if you’re not showing any symptoms.

However, if you do have symptoms of genital herpes, it’s important to see a doctor. They can make a diagnosis and discuss management strategies with you.

Additionally, if you think you may have been exposed to genital herpes, or if you want a full STI exam and testing, you can schedule an appointment with your doctor.

If you can’t make it to a doctor in person, you can also use an at-home test kit. However, an in-person test done by your doctor may be more accurate.

Your doctor can typically diagnose a herpes transmission by a visual examination of the herpes sores. Although they aren’t always necessary, your doctor may confirm their diagnosis through laboratory tests.

A blood test can diagnose herpes simplex virus before you experience an outbreak. However, it’s not always necessary to be screened for HSV-1 or HSV-2 if you haven’t been exposed to the virus and aren’t displaying any symptoms.

You may also consider ordering a home test kit for herpes.

Treatment can reduce the outbreaks, but it cannot cure herpes simplex viruses.

Medications

Antiviral drugs may help speed up the healing time of the sores and reduce pain. Medications may be taken at the first signs of an outbreak (tingling, itching, and other symptoms) to help reduce the symptoms.

People who have outbreaks may also be prescribed medications to make it less likely that they’ll get outbreaks in the future.

Home care

Use mild cleansers when bathing or showering in warm water. Keep the affected site clean and dry. Wear loose cotton clothing to keep the area comfortable.

Your risk of contracting genital herpes increases if you:

If you’re sexually active, you can lower your risk of contracting genital herpes by:

  • Using barrier methods, like condoms, every time you have sex.
  • Refraining from sex with someone who is displaying herpes symptoms. However, it’s important to know that genital herpes can be passed to another person even when symptoms are not present.

It’s normal to be concerned about the health of your baby when you have any type of STI. Genital herpes can be transmitted to your baby if you have an active outbreak during a vaginal delivery.

It’s important to tell your doctor that you have genital herpes as soon as you know you’re pregnant.

Your doctor will discuss what to expect before, during, and after you deliver your baby. They can prescribe pregnancy-safe treatments to ensure a healthy delivery. They may also opt to deliver your baby via cesarean.

You should practice safer sex and use condoms or another barrier method every time you have sexual contact with someone. This will help prevent genital herpes cases and the transmission of other STIs.

There’s no current cure for genital herpes, but researchers are working on a future cure or vaccine.

The condition can be managed with medication.

The disease stays dormant within your body until something triggers an outbreak. Outbreaks can happen when you become stressed, sick, or tired.

Your doctor can help you come up with a treatment plan that will help you manage your outbreaks.