What Are Genital Herpes?

There are two types of herpes: facial and genital. This section focuses on genital herpes.

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) which affects the genital area of men and women. Genital herpes is a viral infection - the herpes simplex virus (HSV) is the cause of genital herpes. The HSV virus is usually transmitted by an infected person during sexual activity through skin contact of the intimate areas. Genital herpes can be transmitted through regular (penis to vagina) sex, oral sex and anal sex.

Genital herpes is not a life threatening disease and unlike other STD's such as AIDs, herpes is not a recently discovered disease (see herpes research & treatment history).

Genital herpes does not cause long term or permanent damage such as sterilization of the infected person. However, unlike most other forms of STD's, genital herpes is a life long condition.


Once a person becomes infected with the HSV virus, the virus can lay dormant in the body. In cycles, the virus may reactivate and cause an episode or outbreak of symptoms.

People with the genital herpes virus often display no signs of symptoms and in many cases they are unaware they carry the herpes virus. Transmission of the HSV (herpes simplex virus) can occur even in those who show no signs of HSV being present and the genital herpes virus can be passed through the skin. This is known as asymptomatic shedding. Asymptomatic shedding accounts for around 70 percent of genital herpes transmission. Whilst the herpes virus remains undetected in many, in some cases there are obvious physical symptoms.

Symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • itchy or painful clusters or groups of blisters
  • bumps or rashes around the genital area, buttocks or thighs

Less obvious symptoms include pain, redness and/or itching in the genital area. Genital discharge is another possible symptom of herpes.

Genital herpes is caused by a virus and there is no cure. However there are a number of treatment options available. These take the form of medication which can reduce the duration, frequency and severity of outbreaks. In cases where recurrence and symptoms of genital herpes is great, oral anti viral medication is regularly prescribed. One herpes treatment option, suppressive therapy, is used to reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Another herpes treatment option, episodic therapy, treats outbreaks when they arise. Oral anti viral medication is used with both forms of treatment.

The psychological impact of genital herpes can be great. The physical symptoms of genital herpes can bring on anxiety and distress to the infected person. In some cases this can severely affect self esteem and also impact on an infected persons sexual and social life.

Herpes Support Groups offer help with both the physical and psychological effects of the herpes virus.

A common anxiety of those with genital herpes is fear of transmitting the virus to another person.

In women, there is often a concern that the herpes virus may affect pregnancy and their ability to have children.

Educating, informing and supporting the newly diagnosed can help reduce feelings of anger, guilt and regret experienced by many with genital herpes.

What Health maintain a list of Herpes Support Groups which covers most of the United States, Canada and other countries worldwide.