Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Oct 09, 2018
Last Modified Date: Oct 09, 2018
Published Date: Aug 21, 2017
A virus infection that affects the sex organs, genital herpes is transmitted through sexual intercourse or oral sex. Both sexes and all ages can be affected. It is caused by the Herpes type 2 virus (HSV-2) and is often confused with the Herpes type 1 virus (HSV-1) which causes common cold sores around the mouth. The two are distinctly different viruses but can cause similar symptoms.
Up to 70 percent of all adults report common oral herpes (HSV-1) by the time they are 40. This type of virus is typically transmitted through nonsexual means, often from an adult who carries the HSV-1 virus or from other children. (HSV-2 infections can also occur around the mouth but they are uncommon).
Genital herpes, or HSV-2, is one of the most frequently reported sexually transmitted diseases, with about 50 million adults over the age of 15 believed to have genital herpes. Generally transmitted by a sexual partner who has active herpes lesions, there is a relatively high risk of the disease among teens and young adults who are newly sexually active. The lesions can be on the genitals, hands, lips or mouth and can include the Herpes type 1 virus.
The risk for genital herpes is generally higher if you have an illness that has lowered your immune system. Some people report emotional or physical stress as a “trigger,” as well as genital trauma, sunbathing, menstruation or certain types of infections. There is no cure at present but antiviral drugs are effective in treating symptoms and reducing the severity of outbreaks. It has been reported that first outbreaks are the worst in severity, with recurring outbreaks milder. Men tend to experience recurrence of herpes more frequently than women.
Though you can have a sexually transmitted disease without any symptoms, the following 10 signs and symptoms may indicate that you have genital herpes. The only way to determine for sure is through a lab test for herpes.
Signs and Symptoms of Herpes
- Severe itching or irritation on the vaginal lips or on the penis.
- Development of painful blisters within two – 20 days of first infection, on the vaginal lips or on the penis. These blisters may extend from the vagina to the cervix and the urethra.
- Painful and/or difficult urination.
- On occasion, enlarged lymph glands.
- Fever and a generalized feeling of illness that is often mistaken for the flu or another type of virus. In rare cases, there may be headache, back pain, leg pain, stiff neck, sore throat and heightened sensitivity to light, along with fatigue. These symptoms can easily mimic the flu.
- Episodic outbreaks - symptoms that last for just a few days and then disappear for long periods of time. The period of infection in which symptoms are present is called an “outbreak.”
- Itching, tingling or pain in the area where the outbreak takes place – a warning that the virus is reactivating.
- In women, vaginal discharge or pain with urination. In men, there could be burning urination with our without lesions or discharge. While symptoms can vary from person to person, they are often mistaken for a yeast or bladder infection in both men and women.
- If anal sex is involved, a herpes infection can occur in the anal and rectal areas. Symptoms in these areas can include rectal pain and discharge. Fever, muscle aches and changes in bowel movements may also occur.
- In rare, but potentially serious cases, herpes outbreak infections can cause inflammation of the spinal cord (viral meningitis) with stiff neck and eye pain. Fortunately, this type of secondary complication seldom happens.
What about transmitted genital herpes from mother to child? Though the risk of transmitting herpes from mother to fetus is small if the woman acquired the infection prior to pregnancy, it’s a good idea for both partners to be tested for herpes and discuss any risks to the infant with a healthcare provider once a pregnancy is confirmed. Use of condoms helps decrease the risk of transmitting herpes. If your symptoms differ from those described above, please see other common STD symptoms.