Genital Herpes

Herpes sore.

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). One out of 5 teens and adults carry the herpes virus. During an outbreak, it causes small blisters that break open, leaving small, painful sores in the genital area. Eventually, scabs form and the sores heal. In women, these show up most often on the skin just outside the vaginal opening. They can occur on the buttocks, anus, or cervix. In men, the sores are usually on the tip, sides, or base of the penis. They also occur on the scrotum, buttocks, or thighs.

The first outbreak begins within 2 to 3 weeks after exposure to an infected sexual partner. It may last 1 to 3 weeks. It may cause headache, muscle ache, and fevers. The first outbreak is usually the worst. Because the virus remains in the body even after the sores heal, most people will have more outbreaks. The frequency of outbreaks is different for each person. Some people will never have another outbreak. Others will have several episodes a year. Later outbreaks are usually shorter, milder, and less painful. For many, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over time. Various factors may trigger an outbreak. These include:

  • Emotional stress

  • Menstruation

  • Presence of another illness (cold, flu, or fever from any cause)

  • Overexertion and fatigue

  • Weak immune system

Home care

  • It is very important that you do not have sexual relations until all the herpes sores have healed completely.

  • Wash the affected area gently with mild soap and water. Wash your hands after touching the affected area.

  • You may use over-the-counter pain medicine unless another pain medicine was prescribed. If you have chronic liver or kidney disease or have ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines. Also talk to your provider if you are taking medicine to prevent blood clots. Aspirin should never be given to anyone younger than 18 years of age who is ill with a viral infection or fever. It may cause severe liver or brain damage.

  • Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicine during the first outbreak. This will help the sores heal faster. Antiviral medicine may also be prescribed so that you have it ready to take at the first sign of another outbreak. This will help the symptoms go away sooner. For people with frequent outbreaks, daily preventive therapy may be prescribed. This will help reduce the frequency of attacks. Daily preventive therapy may also reduce risk of spread of herpes to your sexual partner. Discuss the risks and benefits of daily therapy with your healthcare provider.

  • If you are a woman who is pregnant now or may become pregnant in the future, let your healthcare provider know that you have had herpes. This may affect the way your baby is delivered.

Preventing spread to others

The virus is spread by sexual contact with someone who has the herpes virus. The risk of spread is highest when the sores are present. However, there is a chance of spreading the virus even when sores are not visible. Inform future sexual partners that you have herpes and that they may become infected. To reduce the risk of passing the virus to a partner who has never had herpes, avoid sexual relations at the first sign of an outbreak and until the sores are fully healed. Latex barriers, such as condoms, reduce the risk of spread between outbreaks if the infected site is covered, but they do not guarantee protection.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

People who have just learned that they have herpes may feel upset. Getting the facts about herpes can help you feel more in control. Follow up with your healthcare provider or the public health department for complete STI screening, including HIV testing.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Inability to urinate due to pain

  • Swelling or increasing redness in the genital area

  • Discharge from the vagina or penis

  • Increasing back or abdominal pain

  • Rash or joint pain

Call 911

Call 911 or get immediate medical care if any of these occur:

  • Unusual drowsiness, weakness, or confusion

  • Worsening headache or stiff neck

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