Go to AAD Home
Donate For AAD Members Search

Go to AAD Home

Genital herpes: Who gets and causes

Who gets genital herpes?

Any sexually active person can get genital herpes. It’s very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 in 6 people in the United States who are 14 to 49 years old has genital herpes.

Couple having intimate dinner for two on the terrace of summer evening
Genital herpes spreads through sex. You can reduce your risk of getting genital herpes by having one sex partner.
Many people who have genital herpes don’t know it because they never develop symptoms. This makes genital herpes easy to spread.

While it’s easy to get infected, some people have a higher risk of getting genital herpes. Women are more likely to get infected during sex. People who have many sexual partners also have a higher risk.

Anyone who has a weakened immune system also has a higher risk. People can have a weakened immune system for many reasons. Medication is one reason. Medications that weaken the immune system include those taken to prevent losing a transplanted organ and some that control severe psoriasis.

Genital herpes and HIV

Having a disease like HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) also weakens the immune system. If you already have HIV and get genital herpes, you can develop serious problems. People who have HIV and think they may have genital herpes should see their health care provider.

What causes genital herpes?

The herpes simplex virus causes genital herpes.

This virus generally spreads during sex. You can get it by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has genital herpes. If your sexual partner has a cold sore and performs oral sex on you, you can also get genital herpes this way.

The virus that causes genital herpes lives in herpes sores and genital fluids. When the sores clear, the virus travels to the nerves where it sleeps.

If something triggers the virus, it travels back to the skin or genitals. Stress, fatigue, and surgery are common triggers that can wake up the virus.

When on the surface of the skin (or genitals), the virus may not cause sores or any symptoms. Even though you cannot see anything, a virus on the surface of the skin (or genitals) could be shedding some of its cells.

If you have sex with someone who has genital herpes while the virus is shedding cells, you could get genital herpes. That’s why people who have genital herpes should always wear a condom during sex if their partner doesn’t have genital herpes.

Related AAD resources

Centers for Disease Control. “Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed).” Last accessed December 19, 2016.

Fatahzadeh M and Schwartz RA. “Human herpes simplex virus infections: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, symptomatology, diagnosis, and management.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2007; 57:737-63.

Marques AR, Straus SE, “Herpes simplex.” In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2008: 1199-1204.