Lisa Savage, MD


Article: Genital Herpes

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Genital herpes is a viral infection spread through sexual contact. It affects one in five adults in the United States — about 50 million people.

What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It is spread through close contact, most often during sexual activity.

How Infection Occurs

The herpes virus passes through a break in your skin. It also can enter the moist membranes of the penis, vagina, urinary opening, cervix or anus. Once the virus gets into your body, it infects healthy cells. Your body's natural defense system then begins to fight the virus. This causes sores, blisters and swelling.


Many people infected with herpes have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they vary with each person. Some people have painful attacks with many sores. Others have only mild symptoms.

See your doctor right away if you have symptoms of genital herpes.


One way your doctor can diagnose herpes is to examine the genitals. There are also a number of tests to detect infection. The most accurate way is to obtain a sample from the sore and see if the virus grows in a special fluid.


There is no cure for genital herpes. However, there are oral medications to help control the course of the disease. Medication can shorten the length of an outbreak and help reduce discomfort.

Avoiding Recurrence

Although herpes sores heal in days or weeks, herpes does not leave your body. The virus travels to nerve cells near your spine. It stays there until some event triggers a new bout.

No one is sure why some people have recurrences of herpes.

About 90 percent of people with herpes have repeat bouts. How often these bouts occur varies greatly from person to person.

Spread Prevention

If you or your partner have oral or genital herpes, avoid sex from the time of prodromal symptoms until a few days after the scabs have gone away. Not having sex doesn't mean you can't kiss, hug or cuddle. Just be sure that lesions and their secretions do not touch the other person's skin. Wash your hands with soap and water after any possible contact with lesions. This will keep you from reinfecting yourself or passing the virus to someone else.

Using a condom may not protect against herpes.

Finally …

Herpes affects millions of people in the United States. It can be a source of concern and discomfort. Simple measures can ease the symptoms of herpes, and medication can promote healing. Over time, most people with herpes find ways to cope with the disease.

This excerpt from ACOG's Patient Education Pamphlet is provided for your information. It is not medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for visiting your doctor. If you need medical care, have any questions, or wish to receive the full text of this Patient Education Pamphlet, please contact your obstetrician-gynecologist.

To ensure the information is current and accurate, ACOG titles are reviewed every 18 months.


Copyright © Dr. Lisa Savage, MD. All rights reserved.