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Genital Herpes

Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D.,
Former Human Development & Family Studies Specialist
College of Human Environmental Sciences
University of Missouri-Columbia



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 for life.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Unfortunately, most people who have genital herpes don't know it because they never have any symptoms, or they do not recognize any symptoms. When there are symptoms, they can be different in each person.

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







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