Healthy Living

What are the Key Characteristics of Genital Herpes?

What are the Key Characteristics of Genital Herpes?

Key Takeaways

  • Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus. 
  • Genital herpes is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. 
  • Genital herpes can only be treated and not cured. 

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of HSV: HSV1, which mostly causes cold sores, and HSV2, which mostly causes genital herpes. Some cases of genital herpes may also be caused by HSV1. This sexually transmitted infection is quite common among the adult population in the United States. It also affects children as young as 12. Primarily caused by HSV-2, it is seen now that the HSV-1 virus has been the leading cause of this infection.

Although a contagious disease, people with herpes can show few to no symptoms at all. With time, the outbreaks and the symptoms grow mild and the need to alleviate such signs subsides. With millions of cases being registered every year, there is still no perfect cure for herpes.


Symptoms of genital herpes may occur during a primary infection, which occurs after the initial infection. Symptoms will manifest within 24 hours, but this is not always the case. Some people may not experience any symptoms whatsoever until a few weeks or even months later. Because HSV is not eradicated from the body but remains in the body mostly in the nerves or ganglia, it can be reactivated to cause symptoms again. This is referred to as a recurrent infection or an outbreak.

The severity and number of outbursts that a person will experience may vary with an average of four to five per year. Certain factors may provoke an outbreak or even intensify symptoms during an outbreak. Stress is also a major contributor to recurrent infections. Other factors include a weak immune system, poor diet, and exposure to UV radiation. It is seen that the infection caused by HSV-1 is less likely to recur than the one caused by HSV-2, which can come back as multiple episodes in a year.

One of the most common features of genital herpes is that it causes small blisters to appear on the genitals, shaft of the penis, or even the glans penis (bulbous structure at the distal end). These blisters may increase in size and finally merge to form one big blister. The blisters contain the herpes simplex virus and colorless fluid. Over the next few days, the blisters will crack open and cause fluid to ooze out. It is during this period that a person with herpes is very contagious, so it is important to avoid contact with this fluid. The blisters take up to three weeks before they can completely heal, forming a scab on the part of the skin. Pain is usually associated with blisters. This pain can be so intense that a person may need to take over-the-counter painkillers. In very rare cases, there might be symptoms of Myeloradiculitis and urinary retention due to the spreading of infection to the sacral region of the spinal cord.

Symptoms are mild during an outbreak as compared to symptoms during a primary infection. With time, people experience fewer and fewer outbreaks. Other features of genital herpes include flu-like symptoms. These include itching, malaise, headache, body aches, fever, and enlarged inguinal lymph nodes. Some people may experience pain during urination due to the presence of blisters in the urethra. Some women may have lesions in the cervix and may produce a smelly discharge from the vagina. Blisters may also occur on the buttocks, anus, and thighs. Cervicitis and Dysuria (painful urination) are the common symptoms that accompany this infection in women. People engaging in anal intercourse can be affected by an acute inflammation of the rectum and anus (Herpetic Proctitis).

Spread and Treatment

Genital herpes is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. Sexual intercourse is the main route of transmission, but touching the sores of a person with genital herpes can also be a mode of transmission of this STI. Mother-to-child transmission is also possible. That is why pregnant women who have symptoms during labor are recommended to undergo a Cesarean section.

Genital herpes can only be treated and not cured. Treating genital herpes largely consists of administering anti-viral drugs. These include acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir. These medications help to improve symptoms and keep the virus from actively reproducing. This, therefore, decreases the occurrence of outbreaks and also the severity of symptoms. However, this is only the case when the medications are taken on a daily basis, causing the chance of a recurrent infection to decrease. Trying natural remedies, such as using honey or propolis, will also improve the rate of healing of sores and improve the ability of the immune system to fight the infection.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle, such as exercising and eating healthy foods, will help to improve the overall health of a person with genital herpes. Knowing trigger factors will also be important, since avoiding them will be imperative in reducing outbreaks. Stress, one of the most common triggers for genital herpes, can be avoided through relaxation techniques.

Along with such measures, a few of the following steps can be followed to ensure some relief:

  • Do not wear jeans or trousers which can apply pressure on the affected spot. Try to use loose clothes, which let in air and provide apt circulation.
  • When in pain, put an ice pack on the sores for some time. Do not repeat this process when the pain decreases.
  • Do use a lukewarm solution of salt and water to rinse the affected area at least twice a day. This would clean the area of any further contamination and prevent further blisters.


Prevention of genital herpes mostly consists of using latex condoms, avoiding sexual relations with a person with herpes when blisters are present, and limiting the number of sex partners. Condoms may not provide complete protection, and transmission of genital herpes can still occur.

Sometimes herpes is misread and improper medications are taken. When suspicious, you should always consult your doctor, as some bacterial or vaginal yeast infections may have the same symptoms. Avoid sexual intercourse if your partner is affected by any kind of sores. Herpes provides the gateway for an HIV infection, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Final Thoughts

While genital herpes cannot be cured, it can be adequate treated. Be sure to prevent transmitting genital herpes, and avoid getting genital herpes by taking necessary precautions.