Most people are unaware they have genital herpes because they do not have symptoms. Some people may have mild symptoms or mistake their symptoms for something else, such as jock itch or a yeast infection. Sexual contact with others can spread the infection even if symptoms are not present.
If recognizable symptoms do occur, they usually appear 4-7 week of exposure. There may be an early period of symptoms just before the the skin lesions appear, which may include:
Flu-like symptoms may also occur including:
Genital herpes is marked the initial outbreaks, healing, and recurrences. Outbreaks may cause:
Blisters may become painful open sores. Outbreaks usually appear on or inside the genital and/or anal areas. Examples include the penis, vulva, cervix (the entrance to the uterus), rectum, or urethra (the tube that carries urine from the body). Lesions can also appear on the buttocks or upper thighs.
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The lesions usually heal without scarring within 2-6 weeks. At the end of the outbreak, a crust forms over the outer layer of the sore and the crust eventually falls off. This indicates a period of inactivity. Even though you don't have visible signs of genital herpes during inactive periods, it is important to know you can still transmit the virus to others.
Outbreaks may occur a number of times throughout the year, or may only occur once or twice in a lifetime. The frequency of outbreaks varies from person to person. The first year after the initial infection is usually the most severe and painful, with a second outbreak often happening only a few weeks later. As time goes on, recurrences tend to become milder and shorter in duration. Often, recurrences are signaled by symptoms where the virus first entered your body.
Infection with the HSV-2 virus is associated with more frequent recurrences than an infection with HSV-1 virus.
Untreated, genital herpes can cause complications such as:
2015 Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015/default.htm. Updated March 9, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2016.
Beauman JG. Genital herpes: a review. Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(8):1527-1534.
Genital herpes. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 8, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2016.
Genital herpes—CDC fact sheet (detailed). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm. Updated November 17, 2015. Accessed June 6, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by James Cornell, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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