Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D.,
|A recent Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) report suggests that adolescent herpes
infections may be declining. Despite a decline, however, the
report also notes that more than one in six people aged 14
to 49 in the U.S. are infected with herpes.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD)
caused by the herpes simplex virus or HSV, a member of the
virus family that causes chicken pox and "mono"
(mononucleosis). There are two types of HSV. HSV type 1 most
commonly infects the lips, causing sores known as fever
blisters or cold sores, but it also can infect the genital
area and produce sores. HSV type 2 is the usual cause of
genital herpes, but it also can infect the mouth. In other
words, both of these viruses can cause oral herpes, genital
herpes or both.
How does one get genital herpes?
Most people acquire genital herpes by having unprotected
sex with someone who is having a herpes "outbreak" (i.e.,
visible lesions or sores in the genital area); however,
people can also get genital herpes by having unprotected sex
with an infected partner who is having an outbreak without
any visible sores. Genital herpes is frequently transmitted
through oral sex, and in fact, most HSV type 1 genital
herpes infections result from unprotected oral sex. In
addition, one can spread genital herpes to other parts of
the body by touching a genital herpes sore or lesion and
then touching another part of the body. Once a person is
infected with genital herpes, the virus remains in the body
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Usually within 30 days after the sexual encounter, sores
appear near where the virus has entered the body, such as on
the mouth, penis, anus, or vagina. They also can occur
inside the vagina and on the cervix in women, or in the
urinary passage of women and men. Small red bumps appear
first, develop into blisters, and then become painful open
sores. Over several days, the sores become crusty and then
heal without leaving a scar.
After the first outbreak, further outbreaks are usually
mild and last only about a week. An infected person may know
that an outbreak is about to happen by a tingling feeling or
itching in the genital area, or pain in the buttocks or down
the leg. For some people, these symptoms can be the most
painful and annoying part of an episode. Sometimes, only the
tingling and itching are present and no visible sores
develop. At other times, blisters appear that may be very
small and barely noticeable, or they may break into sores
that crust over and then disappear.
The frequency and severity of recurrent episodes vary
greatly among infected individuals. While some persons have
only one or two outbreaks in a lifetime, others may have
several outbreaks a year. The number and pattern of repeat
outbreaks often change over time for a person. Scientists do
not know what causes the virus to become active again.
Although some people with herpes report that their outbreaks
are brought on by another illness or stress, outbreaks are
often unpredictable. In some cases outbreaks may be
connected to exposure to sunlight.
Is there a treatment for herpes?
There is no cure for herpes. However, there are three prescription drugs available for treating herpes: acyclovir, famcyclovir and valcyclovir. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has approved clinical trials of an experimental vaccine that may help prevent transmission of genital herpes.
Last Updated 12/08/2016