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Genital Herpes Overview

On This Page: How Common? | Causes | Risk FactorsPrevention & Vaccines

What Is Herpes?

Herpes is an STD caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are many different strains of HSV, but HSV-1 and HSV-2 are the most common.

Herpes often will show no symptoms at all, but the easiest identifier, when symptoms do occur, is an outbreak of painful blisters.

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Two-thirds of genital herpes cases are symptomless, and because much of the genitals are left uncovered by condoms, genital herpes can still be contracted during sex even if a condom is used. Our herpes tests are confidential, affordable, and no appointment is needed.

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What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is not a scientific term; it simply refers to where on the body the herpes simplex virus is located. Because HSV-2 most commonly affects the genitals, society tends to associate genital herpes as always being caused by HSV-2, although that isn’t necessarily the case.

It is important to note that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be found in the genital area. HSV-2 virus generally affects the genital area, and HSV-1 is more disposed to the oral or facial location. Because most people recognize HSV-2 as genital herpes, when we test for “genital herpes,” we are testing for HSV-2. However, HSV-1 as the cause of genital herpes is increasingly more likely with the rise in popularity of oral sex.

It’s important to be tested for both strains of HSV-1 and HSV-2, as it’s nearly impossible to determine which virus strain you carry based on the location of symptoms.

When the herpes simplex virus comes into contact with the skin, it can infect skin cells, then penetrate further and infect the nerve cells. This is a big reason that the virus will usually remain local to the area that you first came into contact with it.

How Common Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is extremely common. The CDC estimates that one in six U.S. citizens between the ages 14-49 has genital herpes.1

Chances are, you already know someone who has genital herpes.

How Serious Is It?

If you have genital herpes, you are going to be okay. Herpes is not life-threatening, and it’s very common. There are certain lifestyle changes that you may need to adapt to, but your sex life is not over.

While there is no cure for genital herpes, there are treatment options that can help reduce the severity and/or frequency of outbreaks.2 To learn more about genital herpes treatment, visit our Genital Herpes Diagnosis and Treatment page.

How Do You Get Herpes?

Herpes is extremely contagious and is easily spread from infected fluids, like saliva and genital secretions, or skin-to-skin contact with a herpes sore or the affected area.

HSV-1 and HSV-2 can both be spread through:

  • Vaginal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex

Even if a sexual partner’s skin is free of herpes sores, it is still possible to get herpes, this is called viral shedding. Though visible sores may not be present, the virus is still transmittable.3

The CDC states that herpes is not transferred through the use of toilet seats, bedding, towels, or swimming pools.

Most cases of HSV-2 are transmitted through physical contact with someone who already has the disease, but it is recommended to avoid sharing drinks or other inanimate objects that may have recently come into contact with infected saliva or secretions (such as sex toys).

Herpes can also be transmitted from mother to infant during childbirth, especially if the mother has active genital sores. Because a newborn with birth-acquired herpes can suffer brain damage, breathing problems, and seizures, it’s important to test for and treat herpes sores when pregnant.

There is a misconception that when you discover you have herpes, you or your partner has cheated. This is often not the case. It is very difficult to determine how and when herpes was acquired because the virus can lie dormant for years.

Can I Get it Again?

There is no getting genital herpes again because unfortunately, herpes is for life. There is no cure and the virus remains in your body forever. You may or may not continue to experience outbreaks intermittently, but the virus never leaves the body.

If you’ve contracted HSV-2 (genital herpes), it’s still possible for you to contract HSV-1 (oral herpes), and vice versa.

Is it Contagious?

Yes, herpes is extremely contagious. The virus is most contagious when symptoms are present, however, it can still be transmitted even if there are no visible symptoms at all.

Condoms can help reduce the spread of herpes, but as they do not entirely protect from skin-to-skin contact of affected areas, there is still a risk.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone who is sexually active can get genital herpes. That being said, certain activities can put you at a higher risk for contracting certain STDs.4 Herpes specifically is a very contagious and extremely common STD, so while certain choices put you at a higher risk, there is still risk involved in most sexual encounters.

You are at a higher risk of contracting genital herpes if any of the following apply to you:

  • Frequent changes in sexual partners
  • Frequently engaging in unprotected sex
  • Having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with an infected partner

Having other STDs (especially HIV, which reduces the body’s ability to fight off infection)

Prevention & Vaccines

According to the CDC, the best way to avoid genital herpes is abstinence. Long-term, monogamous relationships and an emphasis on consistent condom use are recommended.

Avoid sharing drinks or sex toys with others, and always have a conversation about your sexual status before engaging in sex.

If your partner is HSV positive, make sure that they are taking antivirals to suppress outbreaks which will help prevent you from contracting the virus. Do not have sex with a partner who is experiencing an outbreak.

Vaccines – Unfortunately, there is no vaccine to protect from contracting herpes.

  1. “Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
  2. “Herpes Treatment.” American Sexual Health Association. http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/herpes/herpes-treatment/
  3. “Herpes Simplex Virus.” World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus
  4. “Risk Factors for Genital Herpes.” Winchester Hospital. https://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=103113

Medically Reviewed by on February 13, 2020


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