Herpes Overview

Genital herpes is one of the most common and contagious STDs in the United States and is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (also known as HSV-2 or herpes type 2). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with HSV-2.

HSV-2 infections usually cause painful sores on the vagina, penis or surrounding genital area. Herpes is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact most commonly with vaginal and anal sex.

While herpes is not curable it is not life-threatening and does not necessarily require medication. Antiviral medications, however, may help to shorten the duration and severity of outbreaks and can be used to decrease the risk of spreading it to others.

Typically herpes is more annoying than medically harmful but for some people it can be serious. For persons with compromised immune systems, serious health problems, from meningitis to encephalitis (infections of the brain and surrounding membranes) may develop. It's also possible for an infected mother to transmit herpes to her baby during a vaginal delivery, potentially causing blindness, brain damage or even death.

Additionally, herpes can increase the risk of getting other STDs, like HIV. The earlier herpes is diagnosed the less likely you are to spread it to others.

Herpes Symptoms

Genital herpes is most contagious from the first tell-tale signs of tingling or burning (prodrome), until sores have completely healed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, more than 80% of people infected with HSV-2 (genital herpes) don't know they're infected. They have mild or no symptoms, but they're still contagious to others. That's why getting tested is so important.

Initial HSV-2 symptoms in women (within two weeks after exposure) may include:

  • No obvious symptoms
  • Blisters, sores or red bumps in the vaginal area, anus or cervix
  • Itching or other discomfort in the genital area
  • Painful urination
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Flu-like symptoms (including headache, muscle aches, fatigue or fever)
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Blisters or sores in and around the buttocks, inner thighs or fingers (herpes whitlow)
  • Difficulty urinating

Initial HSV-2 symptoms in men (within two weeks after exposure)

  • No obvious symptoms


  • Blisters, sores or red bumps on the penis, scrotum or urethra
  • Itching or other discomfort in the genital area
  • Painful urination
  • Flu-like symptoms (including headaches, muscle aches, fatigue or fever)
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Blisters or sores in and around the buttocks, anus, inner thighs or fingers (herpes whitlow)
  • Proctitis (uncomfortable inflammation of the lining of the rectum)

Recurrences of herpes outbreaks

Recurring signs and symptoms of genital herpes vary from person to person. Some people experience several outbreaks per year, which can be triggered by stress, fatigue, illness, sun exposure or menstruation. But for most people, outbreaks are fewer and less intense over time.


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Herpes Risks & Complications

How do people get infected with herpes?

Herpes is contracted by having sex with an infected partner. While it is most commonly contracted when your partner has open sores, or you are not using a condom, it can be spread even in the absence of symptoms and with condom use.

If you have herpes, you should avoid sex during an outbreak of skin lesions. But remember, herpes can also be transmitted when no symptoms are present. This is called "viral shedding."

What are some ways that herpes cannot be spread?

You cannot get herpes through contact with toilet seats, bath tubs, hot tubs, swimming pools, towels, or the like.

What if herpes is left untreated?

While it's not necessary to treat herpes that is mild or asymptomatic, some people, usually those with compromised immune systems should be treated to prevent serious complications.

In rare cases, meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord); eczema herpetiform (widespread herpes across the skin, resembling smallpox); as well as eye infections, pneumonia and other health problems may develop. That's why getting tested is so important.

Herpes and HIV

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with herpes are two to three times more likely to get HIV if exposed, and vice versa. In particular, genital sores or lesions allow these viruses to more easily enter the body upon contact.

In general, someone who has one STD is at greater risk for infection with other STDs, including HIV. That's because STDs cause ulcers, sores, or otherwise break the skin or mucous membranes make people more susceptible. Also, someone with one or more STDs may have a weakened immune system that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases.

Herpes and pregnancy

Pregnant women with herpes may transmit the virus to their baby, particularly if their initial herpes outbreak occurs near delivery.  While herpes in newborns is rare, the disease can have devastating effects in infants. According to the CDC, the risk of your baby contracting herpes at birth is less than 1%. Any pregnant woman with herpes should discuss this with their OB/gynecologist.

Herpes Testing & Treatment

How do I get tested for herpes?

We make getting tested for herpes simple. Test in the privacy of your own home, at your convenience with our discreet Herpes Test Kit. It’s never been more simple to get the answers you need about your sexual health.

What herpes test results mean

  • HSV-2 antibodies present (positive): This means you may have genital herpes.
  • HSV-2 antibodies not present (negative): This means you probably don't have genital herpes, unless you were recently infected and your body has not yet produced detectable antibodies.

If you test positive for HSV-2, we're here to help. You'll have the opportunity to talk to our doctors for a phone consult. They will answer your questions and help you determine the next steps.

When should I test for genital herpes?

A “testing window” is the period of time between when you contract a STD and when the test is positive.  For example, if you had unprotected sex last night and became infected with herpes, your test would be negative. The testing window is different for each STD which is why our doctors recommend getting tested 3 weeks after you believe you were first exposed and then again 3 months later.

Is there a cure or treatment for herpes?

Herpes can not be cured but it can be treated. Oral antiviral medications are not necessary but can help prevent or shorten the duration and severity of outbreaks and decrease the risk of spreading the infection to others.

Herpes can recur

Even if you're being treated for herpes, outbreaks may continue. The frequency of recurring outbreaks depends on the duration and severity of the first herpes episode. An initial infection that lasts five weeks or more correlates with almost twice the number of recurrences, compared to an initial infection that doesn't last as long.

Additionally, there's a 60% likelihood of recurring outbreaks with HSV-2. The good news is that people with recurrent outbreaks usually have milder symptoms, or no symptoms at all. Be sure to continue to use latex condoms or a dental dam to minimize the risk of spreading herpes to your sexual partner, even if you don't notice any outbreak symptoms. This is especially important if you are pregnant.

Our Care Team can connect you to a local healthcare professional to help you manage your herpes.

Pregnancy and treatment

In general, herpes can also be treated during pregnancy with prescription medication. It’s important to see your OB/gynecologist to discuss what treatment is best for you and your baby.

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