Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection. It causes small, painful, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters break open and leave an indented sore or ulcer. The blisters can be found on the genitals, buttocks, or thighs. However, they can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the mouth, face, or eyes.
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Genital herpes is usually caused by the herpes simplex 2 virus. The herpes simplex 1 virus causes cold sores most often, but it can also cause genital herpes.
The virus enters the body through genital areas, the mouth, or a break in the skin. After the first outbreak, the virus moves to nerve endings at the base of the spine. It will remain there until the next outbreak.
The virus can be spread with:
- Direct contact with an infected person—such as having contact with the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth (can include sexual or non-sexual contact)
- Fluid from herpes blisters that gets on other parts of the body
- Pregnancy or childbirth—an infection can pass from a mother to her child
The virus is most easily spread when there are blisters. However, the virus may still spread to others when there are no visible skin sores.
The strongest risk factor for genital herpes is having unprotected sex with an infected person. Other risk factors include:
- A high number of sexual partners
- A history of sexually transmitted infections
- Starting to have sex at an early age
Certain factors can trigger a recurrent outbreak of blisters. These factors include:
- Illness or infection
The exact cause of an outbreak is rarely known.
Symptoms depend on whether or not this is your first episode or a recurrence. The virus remains quiet between outbreaks. During this time, you may not have visible symptoms, but the virus may still be shedding. This means the virus can be spread during sex.
The number of outbreaks varies. They may decrease over time.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If you have visible blisters and ulcers, they will be examined.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
- Testing the fluid from an open blister
- Blood tests
Lesions inside the urinary tract, vagina, or cervix may not be easily seen. Your doctor may do additional tests to examine these areas.
If you are diagnosed with genital herpes, you may be tested for other sexually transmitted infections , including HIV .
Getting treatment as soon as possible is important. Early treatment decreases the chance that you will infect others. It will also help you recover faster from an outbreak. However, it is important to keep in mind that the virus remains in your body. There are no treatments that will rid your body of the virus. There are medications to decrease the chance that you will have a recurrent infection.
Prevention strategies include:
- Use latex condoms every time you have sex.
- Avoid oral, anal, or genital sex if your partner has herpes blisters.
- Avoid touching blisters to prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the body.
If you are pregnant and have herpes, tell your doctor. Steps can be taken to help prevent your newborn from getting the infection.