Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(8):1541-1542

See related article on herpes.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes (say: HER-pees) is a disease caused by a virus known as the herpes simplex virus. It causes painful blisters on the thighs or genitals. These blisters break open and turn into sores. The virus can also cause fever blisters or cold sores around the mouth. Once you are infected, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. When blisters and sores form, it is called an outbreak. You can get outbreaks often or only once in a while. Some people never have another outbreak after the first outbreak heals.

Who gets genital herpes?

Anyone can get genital herpes. It usually is spread by having sex with someone who has herpes. You can get genital herpes from having oral sex with someone who has cold sores. Herpes also can be spread from one part of your body to another, such as from your genitals to your fingers, then to your eyes or other parts of your body. It also can be spread from a mother to her baby when she gives birth.

If you have herpes, you can spread the virus to other people whether or not you have open sores.

How can I tell if I have genital herpes?

Herpes sores usually form around the genital area a few days after you are exposed to the virus. The sores usually start as tiny, clear blisters. When they break open, they form pink or red sores. These sores usually crust over and heal within two to 12 days. The blisters are usually in clusters, but you might have just one blister.

You might have a fever, muscle aches, and sore lymph nodes in the groin area. Herpes sores can cause vaginal discharge in women. You also might have trouble urinating.

If you think you might have herpes, you should see your doctor. He or she can do tests to see if you are infected.

How is genital herpes treated?

Genital herpes cannot be cured, but there are ways to treat outbreaks. Your doctor can give you medicines that make the sores go away more quickly than they would on their own. These medicines can also help reduce the number of outbreaks you get.

When you have herpes sores, you should wear loose clothing and keep the genital area clean and dry. Try not to touch the sores, and if you do touch them, wash your hands with warm water and soap right away.

What can I expect?

Most people with herpes will have some outbreaks. Later ones tend to be milder than the first outbreak, and sores may heal faster.

How can I prevent genital herpes?

Use a condom every time you have sex. Ask your partner if he or she has ever had a herpes infection. Do not have oral sex with someone who has cold sores.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Social Health Association

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Herpes Web

  • Web site:

National Herpes Hotline

  • Telephone: (919) 361–8488 (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday)

National STD Hotline

  • Telephone: 1-800-227-8922 or 1-800-342-2437 (24 hours per day, seven days per week)

  • En Español: 1-800-344-7432 (8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Eastern time, seven days per week)

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