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BCM - Baylor College of Medicine

Giving life to possible

Obstetrics and Gynecology

Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted viral infection often causing sores and blisters around the lips, genitals or anus, wherever the virus first enters the body. Genital herpes can be spread through direct contact with these sores and even if a sore is not visible. Genital herpes affects over 45 million people in the United States alone. However, most people infected by the herpes virus find ways of coping with the disease.

What causes genital herpes?

The herpes virus is transmitted through breaks in the skin and through moist membranes of the penis, vagina, urinary opening, cervix or anus as well as the tongue, mouth, eyes, gums, lips, fingers and other parts of the body during oral, vaginal or anal sex. It is also possible for a person to infect themselves if they touch a sore and then rub or scratch another part of their body.

Once inside the body, the herpes virus infects healthy cells. The sores, blisters and swelling are a result of the body's efforts to fight the virus. The herpes virus can survive for a few hours outside the body but it is unlikely to be contracted from contact with toilet seats, hot tubs or other objects.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

In some genital herpes cases, there may be no symptoms. However, in most cases symptoms are likely to develop 2 to 10 days after contact. Symptoms of first time infections vary but may include:

  • Painful, fluid-filled blisters at the point of contact
  • Flu-like symptoms including swollen glands, fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue and nausea
  • Stinging or burning when urinating

Symptoms of recurrent infections also vary but may include:

  • Burning, itching or tingling at the point of contact
  • Sores appearing within a few hours
  • Pain in the lower back, buttocks, thighs or knees

First time infections may last two to four weeks while recurrent infections usually last three to seven days and are typically more mild.

How is genital herpes diagnosed?

Diagnosis may include:

  • A physical exam
  • A test for antibodies either through a sample from a sore or a blood test

How can I prevent genital herpes?

Lifestyle habits that may help prevent genital herpes include:

  • Practicing safe sex
  • Avoiding sex until a few days after sores are completely gone
  • Washing hands with soap and water after contact with the sores

How is genital herpes treated?

There is no cure for genital herpes. Treatment options to control symptoms and speed healing include:

  • Keeping sores clean and dry
  • A hair dryer used on the low setting to dry sores
  • Loose-fitting cotton underwear, no pantyhose
  • Aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve the pain
  • Oral medications to shorten the outbreaks or prevent outbreaks for long periods of time
  • Intravenous medications for severe cases