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First aid

STD - genital herpes

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Does this describe your symptoms?

  • Seeking information about genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease (STD)

General Information
  • Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 or HSV-2).
  • Genital herpes is the most common STD. Close to 50 million persons in the United States have genital herpes.
  • There is no cure for genital herpes; however, there are medications that can reduce the severity and duration of the symptoms.

Typical Symptoms of Genital Herpes

  • Painful, fluid-filled blisters that usually are grouped in clusters. They occur anywhere around the opening of the vagina or on the penis. Blisters dry out, crust over and heal in 7-10 days.
  • The symptoms are worst during the first episode of genital herpes.
  • Recurrences of genital herpes can occur and often are less painful and of shorter duration.
  • People can have genital herpes and have no symptoms at all (asymptomatic).

Additional Resources

  1. American Social Health Association
  2. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines 2002. MMWR. 2002; 51(RR-6):1-80.
  3. Public Health Agency of Canada

If not, see these topics
  • How to PREVENT a sexually transmitted disease
  • PENIS SYMPTOMS (male genital symptoms)
  • VULVAR SYMPTOMS (female genital symptoms)
  • Questions about CHLAMYDIA, a sexually transmitted disease
  • Questions about GONORRHEA, a sexually transmitted disease
  • Questions about HIV, a sexually transmitted disease
  • Questions about PUBIC LICE, a sexually transmitted disease
  • Questions about TRICHOMONAS, a sexually transmitted disease

When to Call Your Doctor

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • You were forced to have sex (sexual assault or rape)
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think you need to be seen
  • Possible first episode of herpes with symptoms of:
    • Painful, fluid-filled blisters that usually are grouped in clusters, and
    • Occur anywhere around the penis or opening of the vagina
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
  • You are worried you might have a sexually transmitted disease
  • Possible first episode of herpes with symptoms of:
    • Painful, fluid-filled blisters that usually are grouped in clusters, and
    • Occur anywhere around the penis or opening of the vagina
  • Pregnant and you had sexual intercourse with someone who was diagnosed with oral or genital herpes
Self Care at Home If
  • No symptoms and you don't think you need to be seen
  • Questions about genital herpes

  1. How is genital herpes transmitted?
    • Genital herpes is spread by sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal) or any direct contact with the genitals of a person who has an active herpes infection (initial episode or recurrence).
    • Many people do not know that they have genital herpes. A person can have no symptoms and still transmit the virus. As a result, most cases of transmission occur with neither sexual partners knowing that it is occurring.
    • Oral herpes (fever blisters) also can be spread to the partner's genitals during oral sex.
  2. How long does it usually take for symptoms to appear once one is exposed?
    • The incubation period is 2 days to 2 weeks.
  3. How can I get tested for herpes?
    • Genital herpes can be diagnosed with a specimen taken from a blister or by blood testing.
  4. Is there treatment for genital herpes?
    • First episode - There are antiviral medications that can be used for genital herpes. Medication doesn't cure the disease, but can shorten the duration of symptoms. Speak with your physician.
    • Recurrent episodes - Antiviral medications can reduce and shorten the duration of symptoms. Speak with your physician.
  5. I have genital herpes. How can I protect my sexual partner from getting herpes?
    • Inform your sexual partner that you have herpes.
    • Abstain from sexual activity with uninfected sexual partners whenever you have the herpes sores or feel them coming on.
    • Remember that you can transmit herpes even when you have no symptoms.
    • A latex condom can reduce the chance of transmission, if used correctly and if the condom covers the herpes sores.
  6. STD National Hotline
    • The CDC National STD Hotline provides information on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV/genital warts, herpes, and HIV/AIDS. Specialists can provide general information, referrals to local clinics, and written materials about STDs and disease prevention.
    • Toll-free number (English): (800) 227-8922
    • Toll-free number (Spanish): (800) 344-7432
    • Their website is at:
  7. Pregnancy test, when in doubt:
    • If there is any possibility of pregnancy, obtain and use a urine pregnancy test from the local drug store.
    • Follow the instructions included in the package.
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Pregnancy test is positive or if you have difficulties with the home pregnancy test.
    • Discharge from penis or unusual vaginal discharge
    • You become worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 1/19/2009

Last Revised: 4/2/2009

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Online

Portions Copyright 2000-2009 Self Care Decisions LLC; Copyright LMS, Inc.

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