Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It may no always cause symptoms, but can cause open sores to develop on the genitals. People may also notice a headache, fatigue, fever, and swollen lymph nodes.

This article gives an overview of genital herpes, including its symptoms, causes, treatments, and complications.

a black and white photo of a condom in someone's back pocketShare on Pinterest
M Suleman khan/500px/Getty Images

People can contract this sexually transmitted infection (STI) through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

Two types of virus can cause genital herpes:

  • herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), which usually causes oral herpes
  • herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2), which usually causes genital herpes

Although HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes, it can spread to the genitals through oral sex, especially if a person has open cold sores.

A person can have HSV-1 and HSV-2 at the same time.

Genital herpes can cause open sores in the genital area, but people might also experience headache, fatigue, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes, however, there are no symptoms at all.

There is currently no cure for genital herpes. It can be easy to transmit to others, even if a person does not have open sores.

Vs. oral herpes

Oral herpes causes cold sores, or fever blisters, to appear on the lips. People usually get oral herpes through salivary contact rather than genital contact.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

Was this helpful?

To prevent the transmission of genital herpes, it is important to use barrier protection during sex.

Genital herpes is very common, affecting 11.9% of people ages 14–49 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People assigned female at birth are more likely to have genital herpes than males because vaginal tissues can tear easily, allowing the virus to enter the body. Estimates from the Office on Women’s Health suggest that genital herpes affects 1 in 5 biological females and 1 in 10 biological males ages 14–49.

Genital herpes does not always cause symptoms. A person may not know that they have this virus until it shows on a routine STI test. However, it may not always be a part of routine STI testing. Many people will discover they are positive during their first outbreak of symptoms.

When genital herpes does lead to symptoms, it typically causes open sores on the genitals and anus.


Initially, the sores usually develop on the part of the body that was first exposed to the virus. The lesions usually appear between 2 and 12 days of sexual contact with a person who has genital herpes.

The hallmark of genital herpes is small blisters that break open, leaving painful sores that can take a few weeks to heal. A person may mistake a mild case of herpes for a few pimples or ingrown hairs.

Often, a person first feels tingling or itching around their genitals, which can last up to 24 hours but usually starts hours or days before the appearance of the lesion.

Other symptoms

People with genital herpes may also notice the following, prodromal symptoms:

Herpes is most contagious when a person has open genital sores, though people can transmit the virus even when there are no sores.

A doctor will usually diagnose genital herpes by asking about a person’s symptoms and examining any lesions that are present. Blood tests and skin scrapings can help diagnose the condition, though these are usually not necessary.

Some symptoms are specific to people assigned male or female at birth.

Symptoms of genital herpes in males

People assigned male at birth are more likely to have repeat outbreaks of genital herpes than females. They may notice blisters or sores on the penis, scrotum, or anus, or unusual discharge from the penis.

Symptoms of genital herpes in females

Getting a menstrual period can cause an outbreak of genital herpes.

Also, a person may mistake the symptoms of genital herpes for those of a yeast infection or bladder infection.

Genital herpes can spread in the following ways:

  • vaginal sex, anal sex, or genital contact with someone who has the virus
  • receiving oral sex from a partner with a cold sore
  • touching a herpes sore, then touching the genitals
  • a baby can contract genital herpes during birth if the mother has the virus

People can sexually transmit the virus even if they have no visible symptoms.

It is not possible to contract genital herpes from toilet seats, bedding, swimming pools, or touching other objects. The virus can only spread from human-to-human contact.

There is no cure for genital herpes. It lays dormant in the body for long periods, then reappears as an outbreak of sores.

However, doctors can prescribe medications that reduce the likelihood of recurring outbreaks. These medicines may also lower the risk of transmitting the virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these medicines can include acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir.

When a person has a genital herpes outbreak, they may be able to promote healing and lower the risk of transmitting the virus by:

  • avoiding sexual contact with another person until the sores have healed
  • keeping the sores clean and dry
  • refraining from touching the sores whenever possible
  • washing the hands immediately after touching the sores
  • using barrier protection during sexual contact until told otherwise by a doctor

The first herpes outbreak is usually the worst. Subsequent outbreaks tend to become less bothersome.

Genital herpes does not typically cause serious health complications. However, it can make a person more vulnerable to contracting HIV.

If a person has genital herpes sores, viruses and bacteria, including HIV, have more opportunity to enter the body. Avoid scratching the sores, as this can lead to bacterial infection.

Also, having HIV can make genital herpes outbreaks more severe.

Genital herpes can also transfer to a fetus through a vaginal delivery if there are active lesions at this time. Pregnant people will need to take antiviral medications as their doctor directs.

Avoiding sexual contact, especially when sores are present, is the only sure way to prevent the spread of genital herpes.

Using condoms reduces the risk of transmitting the infection. However, people can contract herpes from the skin around the genitals, so this is not guaranteed to be effective.

Many people have STIs without knowing it. Doctors recommend getting regular checks, especially after a person has had sex with a new partner.

Genital herpes is an STI that a person can transmit through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It is usually caused by the HSV-2 virus, but it can also be caused by HSV-1.

There is no cure for genital herpes, but by taking antiviral medication, a person can reduce the likelihood of outbreaks and the risk of transmitting the virus.

A doctor can help diagnose genital herpes and recommend treatment options.

People can help prevent the transmission of genital herpes by using barrier protection during sex and by taking antiretroviral medication.

Here are some commonly asked questions about genital herpes.

Do genital herpes go away?

There is no cure for genital herpes, and the condition can flare up with symptoms every so often. These symptoms include open sores on the genitals that can heal over a few weeks and reappear.

What is genital herpes mistaken for?

Genital herpes may appear similar to genital warts, but the two conditions are caused by different viruses. Genital herpes is the result of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), whereas genital warts happen due to human papillomavirus (HPV).

How long is herpes contagious?

Genital herpes is always contagious and a person can pass it on at any time, even if they are not currently experiencing symptoms themselves or never have done – in fact, this is common.

Genital herpes are a contagious sexually transmitted infection that happen as a result of exposure to the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This condition can cause no symptoms at all, but it can also cause open sores, headache, fatigue, fever, and swollen lymph nodes.

Once a person has genital herpes, they can pass it onto other people through sexual contact even when wearing a condom or when not currently experiencing open sores.

There is no cure for genital herpes. However, there are medical treatments available to manage the symptoms and reduce flares.