Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes. See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body. How do you know if you have herpes? Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.
Herpes, whether on the mouth or genitals, is caused by a family of over 70 related viruses. These viral infections cause small, fluid-filled blisters to develop on the skin and mucous membranes. There are actually eight different types of herpes simplex viruses that both children and adults can acquire, but two are by far the most common: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
HSV-2 is contracted through forms of sexual contact with a person who has HSV-2. An estimated 20 percent of sexually active adults in the United States are infected with HSV-2, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). HSV-2 infections are spread through contact with a herpes sore. In contrast, most people get HSV-1 from an infected person who is asymptomatic, or does not have sores.
The frequency and severity of recurrent outbreaks vary greatly between people. Some individuals' outbreaks can be quite debilitating, with large, painful lesions persisting for several weeks, while others experience only minor itching or burning for a few days. Some evidence indicates genetics play a role in the frequency of cold sore outbreaks. An area of human chromosome 21 that includes six genes has been linked to frequent oral herpes outbreaks. An immunity to the virus is built over time. Most infected individuals experience fewer outbreaks and outbreak symptoms often become less severe. After several years, some people become perpetually asymptomatic and no longer experience outbreaks, though they may still be contagious to others. Immunocompromised individuals may experience longer, more frequent, and more severe episodes. Antiviral medication has been proven to shorten the frequency and duration of outbreaks. Outbreaks may occur at the original site of the infection or in proximity to nerve endings that reach out from the infected ganglia. In the case of a genital infection, sores can appear at the original site of infection or near the base of the spine, the buttocks, or the back of the thighs. HSV-2-infected individuals are at higher risk for acquiring HIV when practicing unprotected sex with HIV-positive persons, in particular during an outbreak with active lesions.
Cullins explains that the first, or initial, outbreak is usually the worst, and “over time when you have recurrent episodes, you may not have systemic symptoms” or frequent symptoms. But everyone’s body and immune system reacts to the virus differently; while some people may never have many outbreaks, other people may be more chronically symptomatic. The National Institutes of Health indicate that infrequent outbreaks, around one or two per year, are not uncommon.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 are transmitted by direct physical contact with a sore on an infected person. Facial or lip herpes is most often contracted by kissing someone with a cold sore. Genital herpes is most often contracted during sexual intercourse with a person who has an active genital sore. Genital herpes can also be contracted during or genital sex if a partner has labial herpes.
Herpes virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the cause of cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. Usually, the sores or blisters can show up on the outside of the mouth or on the lips. But sometimes, they can be inside the mouth, on the face, nose, cheeks or fingers. HSV-1 can also lead to infection of the genitals, called genital herpes. This occurs when you have a cold sore and perform oral sex on another person. HSV-1 infections are highly contagious. Apart from oral-genital contact, they can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. If you come into contact with a person or a thing that carries HSV-1, you will be likely to get it, too. Often, people get HSV-1 from kissing someone with a cold sore or when they share eating utensils, razors, or towels.
As with almost all sexually transmitted infections, women are more susceptible to acquiring genital HSV-2 than men. On an annual basis, without the use of antivirals or condoms, the transmission risk of HSV-2 from infected male to female is about 8–11%. This is believed to be due to the increased exposure of mucosal tissue to potential infection sites. Transmission risk from infected female to male is around 4–5% annually. Suppressive antiviral therapy reduces these risks by 50%. Antivirals also help prevent the development of symptomatic HSV in infection scenarios, meaning the infected partner will be seropositive but symptom-free by about 50%. Condom use also reduces the transmission risk significantly. Condom use is much more effective at preventing male-to-female transmission than vice versa. Previous HSV-1 infection may reduce the risk for acquisition of HSV-2 infection among women by a factor of three, although the one study that states this has a small sample size of 14 transmissions out of 214 couples.
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
According to Gina*, 21, “A herpes diagnosis is very shaking and it gives you the opportunity to look inward and really find what you love about yourself.” Gina says she has even better self-esteem than prior to finding out she had HSV. She explains, “You learn not to lower your standards, because you start to pick out who it is worth disclosing to and who isn't.”