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Conditions InDepth: Genital Herpes

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Genital herpes is a very common, highly contagious sexually transmitted disease (STD) found in both women and men. It is one of the most commonly reported infectious diseases in the United States. It often goes unreported because many people don't know they have it, as symptoms can be mild, or mistaken for something else.

Genital herpes is a chronic, lifelong infection with symptoms that come and go throughout life. Left untreated, genital herpes can cause serious complications. It is not curable, but it can be managed.

Causes

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is most often caused by HSV-2 but can also be caused by HSV-1 the version of HSV most often associated with cold sores around the mouth.

The virus can be spread through contact with lesions and bodily fluids including oral or genital secretions. The virus can enter your body through a cut or opening in the skin, or through the moist inner lining of the urinary tract, vaginal area, the mouth, anus, or rectum. The HSV-2 virus is very contagious and can spread even when open lesions are not present. The HSV-1 virus can be passed through oral sex if a partner has cold sores on the mouth.

You can be exposed to more than one STD at a time such as HIV and syphilis. Your doctor may test for other STDs if genital herpes is suspected or diagnosed.

You can be exposed to more than one STD at a time such as HIV and syphilis. Your doctor may test for other STDs if genital herpes is suspected or diagnosed.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: David Horn, MD
  • Review Date: 05/2014 -
  • Update Date: 10/15/2014 -
  • Beauman JG. Genital herpes: A review. Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(8):1527-1534.

  • Genital herpes—CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm. Updated February 13, 2013. Accessed October 15, 2014.

  • Herpes genitalis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated September 8, 2014. Accessed October 15, 2014.

  • Workowski KA, Berman S, et al. Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR. 2010;59(No. RR-12):1-110.