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.
Two types of herpes simplex virus infections can cause genital herpes:
- HSV-1. This is the type that usually causes cold sores or fever blisters around your mouth. HSV-1 is often spread through skin-to-skin contact, though it can be spread to your genital area during oral sex. Recurrences are much less frequent than they are with HSV-2 infection.
- HSV-2. This is the type that commonly causes genital herpes. The virus spreads through sexual contact and skin-to-skin contact. HSV-2 is very common and highly contagious, whether or not you have an open sore.
Because the virus dies quickly outside of the body, it’s nearly impossible to get the infection through contact with toilets, towels or other objects used by an infected person.
Your risk of becoming infected with genital herpes may increase if you:
- Are a woman. Women are more likely to have genital herpes than are men. The virus is sexually transmitted more easily from men to women than it is from women to men.
- Have multiple sexual partners. Each additional sexual partner raises your risk of being exposed to the virus that causes genital herpes.
Complications associated with genital herpes may include:
- Other sexually transmitted infections. Having genital sores increases your risk of transmitting or contracting other sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS.
- Newborn infection. Babies born to infected mothers can be exposed to the virus during the birthing process. This may result in brain damage, blindness or death for the newborn.
- Bladder problems. In some cases, the sores associated with genital herpes can cause inflammation around the tube that delivers urine from your bladder to the outside world (urethra). The swelling can close the urethra for several days, requiring the insertion of a catheter to drain your bladder.
- Meningitis. In rare instances, HSV infection leads to inflammation of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
- Rectal inflammation (proctitis). Genital herpes can lead to inflammation of the lining of the rectum, particularly in men who have sex with men.
The suggestions for preventing genital herpes are the same as those for preventing other sexually transmitted infections: Abstain from sexual activity or limit sexual contact to only one person who is infection-free. Short of that, you can:
- Use, or have your partner use, a latex condom during every sexual contact
- Avoid intercourse if either partner has an outbreak of herpes in the genital area or anywhere else
If you’re pregnant and know you have genital herpes, tell your doctor. If you think you might have genital herpes, ask to be tested for it.
Your doctor may recommend that you start taking herpes antiviral medications late in pregnancy to try to prevent an outbreak around the time of delivery. If you’re having an outbreak when you go into labor, your doctor will probably suggest a cesarean section to reduce the risk of passing the virus to your baby.