FAQs about Genital Herpes: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, Testing, HSV-2

Questions about genital herpes? You’re not alone. Check out these frequently asked questions about genital herpes and the herpes simplex virus that causes it. Head to this page for more detail on genital herpes and potential treatments like light therapy.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a common and contagious sexually transmitted infection (STI) that may result in recurring outbreaks of pain, itching, rashes, and sores in the genital area and/or anus.

Who gets genital herpes?

Anyone can get genital herpes. It usually spreads through sexual contact with people who have an active infection.

How common is genital herpes?

Very common. In the U.S. it is estimated that close to 1 in 5 people between age 14 and 49 have genital herpes. [1] Roughly 15% of people are estimated to have HSV-2.

Is there a cure for genital herpes?

No. After a person contracts the herpes simplex virus that causes genital herpes, it remains dormant in the body for the rest of a person’s life. There is not a cure for genital herpes, but various treatments like ointments, drugs, light therapy, and at-home remedies are used to improve quality of life during outbreaks.

How does genital herpes spread?

Genital herpes spreads mainly through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has it, but genital herpes can also spread by kissing or another close contact with someone who has an active infection.

How do you get genital herpes?

A person who does not have genital herpes can get the virus through contact with:

  • Another person’s genital herpes sore
  • Saliva of a person with oral herpes if they have an oral herpes infection
  • Skin near the mouth of a person with an oral herpes infection, or skin in the genital area of a person with a genital herpes infection [1,2,3,4]


How can I prevent genital herpes from spreading?

Safe sex practices like using condoms and avoiding sexual contact with strangers can help prevent genital herpes from spreading.

Can a person with no genital herpes symptoms still be contagious / spread the virus?

Yes, it is possible to spread genital herpes when a person is not showing symptoms or visible sores.

Can genital herpes spread by sharing soap? Swimming pools? Bedding? Toilet Seats?

No. Genital herpes spreads through direct human-to-human contact, not sharing objects like bedding or toiletries. [1,2]

Do women have a higher risk for genital herpes?

Yes, women are more likely to get genital herpes than are men. The virus is sexually transmitted more easily from men to women than from women to men. [2,3]

What Causes Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by two kinds of the herpes simplex virus:

  • HSV-1, which typically causes oral herpes
  • HSV-2, which typically causes genital herpes [1]

Does everyone with herpes experience outbreaks?

No, it is estimated that over half of all people with HSV-2 do not experience recurring outbreaks. It is not well understood why some people get outbreaks and others do not. [1]

Can I get genital herpes from a cold sore? Can I get genital herpes from oral sex?

Yes, you can get genital herpes from oral sex or exposure to an active oral herpes infection.

Can I get genital herpes from my own cold sore?

Yes, it is possible to spread your own oral herpes to your genitals and get HSV-2.

How often do genital herpes outbreaks happen?

For people who experience genital herpes outbreaks, it can happen several times a year. For others, it is less frequent. Genital herpes also tends to become less severe and recur less often over time.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Genital herpes outbreaks bring painful blisters and sores in the genital area. Sores, blisters, rashes, and itching can occur around the penis, scrotum, vagina, anus, and buttocks. [1,2,3,4]

Symptoms of genital herpes can also include:

  • Flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, fatigue, aches)
  • Itching
  • Painful genital blisters or sores that break open and ooze fluid
  • Headaches
  • Painful urination (dysuria)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Inflammation
  • Pain in the lower back, buttocks, and legs [1,2,3,4]

When are genital herpes symptoms worst?

The first outbreak is usually the worst.

How long does a genital herpes outbreak last?

Symptoms typically last for 2-4 weeks. [1]

What happens during a genital herpes outbreak?

Some people feel a tingle in the area before a sore develops. During an outbreak, sores may break open and ooze fluid. They usually heal on their own within a month and may develop a scab before they go away. Pain levels associated with blisters and outbreaks vary widely from person to person.

How long does it take for genital herpes to appear?

It varies from person to person. Some experience an outbreak in the first few weeks after infection. Others may not experience symptoms for several years, if ever.

Does genital herpes itch? Can genital herpes cause a rash?

Many people with genital herpes experience itching or rashes on their skin during or after an outbreak.

What triggers genital herpes?

For people who have the virus, many potential triggers vary widely from person to person. These are among the most commonly reported triggers:

  • Sexual intercourse
  • Common colds and illnesses
  • Sun exposure
  • Hormonal changes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Surgeries/major medical procedures [5]

How is genital herpes diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose genital herpes by observing active blisters and taking a fluid sample to test for the herpes virus. If a person isn’t having an outbreak, a blood test can check for HSV-2 antibodies, which indicates the virus is present in the body.

Are there genital herpes tests?

Yes. A medical provider can perform a blood or fluid test to check for HSV-2. Some brands also offer at-home testing kits you can buy online or in stores.

Can genital herpes go away?

There is no cure for genital herpes, but outbreaks typically heal on their own in a few weeks. Some people experience fewer symptoms and outbreaks over time, but the virus never leaves the body.

How can I ease the pain of a genital herpes outbreak?

If you have an active outbreak of genital herpes, the Cleveland Clinic recommends taking the following actions to ease symptoms:

  • Keep genitals dry. Moist sores take longer to heal.
  • Apply an ice pack. Wrap in a washcloth or apply it over underwear.
  • Soak in a warm bath, then dry the area.
  • Taking NSAIDs can relieve pain.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing. [1]

Are there drugs for genital herpes?

Some people take antiviral drugs to improve healing times and relieve pain. Common prescription drugs taken to treat genital herpes symptoms include acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex). These are generally taken in pill form. [6]

Can I treat genital herpes with light therapy?

Yes, light treatments are used against genital herpes outbreaks to relieve pain and improve healing times. One example of a home-use light therapy device for cold sores is the Luminance RED Genital Treatment Device. Early clinical research has also indicated light treatments may lessen the viral load of HSV-2 present in the body. [7]

Sources and References:

[1]  Centers for Disease Control. Genital Herpes CDC Fact Sheet.

[2] Cleveland Clinic. Genital Herpes (HSV-2).

[3] Mayo Clinic. Genital Herpes.

[4] Healthline. Genital Herpes.

[5] WebMD. Potential Herpes Triggers.

[6] WebMD. Treatment Options for Managing Genital Herpes.[7] Waked, Deghidi, and Shalaan. HONEY PHONOPHORESIS VERSUS LOW INTENSITY LASER THERAPY IN FEMALE GENITAL HERPES. IJCRR, Vol. 6, Issue 10. May 2014.

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