Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.
Genital herpes can cause pain, itching and sores in your genital area. But you may have no signs or symptoms of genital herpes. If infected, you can be contagious even if you have no visible sores.
There’s no cure for genital herpes, but medications can ease symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others. Condoms also can help prevent the spread of a genital herpes infection.
Most people infected with HSV don’t know they have it because they don’t have any signs or symptoms or because their signs and symptoms are so mild.
When present, symptoms may begin about two to 12 days after exposure to the virus. If you experience symptoms of genital herpes, they may include:
- Pain or itching. You may experience pain and tenderness in your genital area until the infection clears.
- Small red bumps or tiny white blisters. These may appear a few days to a few weeks after infection.
- Ulcers. These may form when blisters rupture and ooze or bleed. Ulcers may make it painful to urinate.
- Scabs. Skin will crust over and form scabs as ulcers heal.
During an initial outbreak, you may have flu-like signs and symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes in your groin, headache, muscle aches and fever.
Differences in Symptom Location
Sores appear where the infection entered your body. You can spread the infection by touching a sore and then rubbing or scratching another area of your body, including your eyes.
Men and women can develop sores on the:
- Buttocks and thighs
- Urethra (the tube that allows urine to drain from the bladder to the outside)
Women can also develop sores in or on the:
- Vaginal area
- External genitals
Men can also develop sores in or on the:
Recurrences Are Common
Genital herpes is different for each person. The signs and symptoms may recur, off and on, for years. Some people experience numerous episodes each year. For many people, however, the outbreaks are less frequent as time passes.
During a recurrence, shortly before sores appear, you may feel:
- Burning, tingling and itching where the infection first entered your body
- Pain in your lower back, buttocks and legs
However, recurrences are generally less painful than the original outbreak, and sores generally heal more quickly.
When to See a Doctor
If you suspect you have genital herpes — or any other sexually transmitted infection — see your doctor.