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Genital herpes: Overview

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It’s caused by the herpes simplex virus.

Anyone who is sexually active can catch this virus. Many people who catch the virus never know they have it because they don’t develop symptoms. They never get painful sores.

A couple with their bicycles watching sunset
Genital herpes is an STD. If your partner has genital herpes, you can catch it — even when your partner doesn’t have sores.

If genital sores develop, the outbreaks tend to be worse during the first year. Some people have 4 or more outbreaks within a year. In time, the outbreaks usually become less frequent. They may even stop.

If you have genital sores and your partner doesn’t, you should not have sex while you have sores — and for a few days after the sores clear. When you have herpes sores, you can easily infect your partner. The virus can be passed through oral, anal, or vaginal sex.

Even when you don’t have sores, you can still infect your partner. Wearing a condom when you don’t have sores helps prevent spreading the virus to your partner.

Higher risk of getting HIV

If you have genital herpes and have sex while you have sores, you increase your risk of getting HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). This virus can easily get inside your body through a herpes sore.

Myths about genital herpes

You may have heard that people who have genital herpes also have a higher risk of getting cancer. That’s not true. Genital herpes doesn’t increase your risk of getting any type of cancer.

Another popular myth is that you can catch genital herpes from a toilet seat. If the virus gets on a toilet seat, it cannot live long enough to infect you. To survive, the virus must be inside the human body.

Living with genital herpes

Because there is no cure for genital herpes, it is a lifelong infection. If you have outbreaks, medication can reduce symptoms. Taking precautions can reduce the risk of spreading the virus to a partner who doesn’t have genital herpes.

Related AAD resources

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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.