The Basics

Genital Herpes (HSV)

What is herpes? Learn how to prevent, manage, and treat herpes with safe practices, lifestyle, and medicine.

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. George Abraham

Last Updated:

December 3rd, 2022

What is Herpes?

Herpes Simplex Virus (also called HSV or Herpes) is a common infection often found on the mouth or genitalia (penis or vagina). Herpes is known for painful or itchy sores and blisters.

Herpes cannot be cured. We can treat the sores with medication and time. But after the symptoms go away, the virus may remain dormant: it stays in the body but does not cause any harm. Then, when our immune system weakens, the virus can activate again (an outbreak) and cause sores.

Types of Herpes

There are two types of Herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2

Herpes Simplex Virus-1 (HSV-1) usually causes cold sores on our mouth and lips. HSV-1 can spread to the genital area, especially during oral sex, and the infection is still called HSV-1.

Herpes Simplex Virus-2 (HSV-2) usually causes sores on our genitalia (penis or vagina) HSV-2 can spread to the mouth and lips, especially during oral sex, and the infection is still called HSV-2.

People often think of HSV-1 as oral herpes and HSV-2 as genital herpes. But, either type of herpes can be on either part of the body.


Most people who get HSV have no symptoms or mild symptoms. If you do have an outbreak, the symptoms might start after four days.

Flu-like Symptoms - The first time you get herpes (called the primary outbreak), you may feel flu-like symptoms like fever, headache, body ache, feeling tired and weak.

Oral (Mouth) Sores – In an oral (mouth) infection, you may see cold sores—tiny blisters filled with fluid—on your lips and around your lips. These blisters often group together in patches. 

When the blisters break, they may form scabs for a few days. Overall, cold sores can heal in two to three weeks.

Genital (Penis or Vagina) Sores — In a genital infection, you may see sores around your penis or vagina. The sores might crust over, but they usually heal without scarring.

A herpes outbreak can last about two to four weeks. 

Getting Tested—Do You Have Herpes?

If you’re feeling the symptoms of herpes, see your healthcare provider (doctor, clinic, hospital). It’s important to get tested because the symptoms of herpes are similar to other conditions, like Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

 A doctor might sample a sore on your mouth, penis, or vagina. A lab looks at this cotton swab to check for Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). 

If you have no symptoms, you can check if you have herpes using a blood test. A blood test may be useful if you have the virus but no active outbreaks.

Mail-In Tests

You may take a sample at the doctor’s office, but you can also use a mail-in self test. The lab will mail you a kit. Then, you take a sample at home. You mail the kit back to the lab. The lab gives you your results with an email, website, or app. 

Testing Positive for an STI: What to Do

There are 4 steps everyone should take after testing positive for an STI, like syphilis.

  1. Stop Having Sex

Doctors can treat STIs with just medicine or an injection (‘shot’). But if untreated, syphilis can spread and cause severe problems. Keep seeing your doctor.

  1. See Your Doctor

Doctors can treat STIs with just medicine or an injection (‘shot’). But if untreated, syphilis can spread and cause severe problems. Keep seeing your doctor.

  1. Get Tested for Other STIs

STIs often come in groups. If you have syphilis, you’re at risk for other STIs. Get tested.

  1. Tell Your Partner

If you are diagnosed with an STI, you should tell your recent sexual partners. This protects your partners’ health because they can get tested and treated.

Partner Services

Talking to your partner about your STI can be hard. If you want to stay anonymous, you can ask your health department or doctor to tell your partner, without mentioning your name.

Or, you can ask a Partner Services Representative to be with you and provide support while you tell your partner.

Treatment: How to Feel Better

Medication: Antibiotics

Herpes cannot be cured. But we can prevent and treat outbreaks of herpes. Managing herpes with your doctor is important because a herpes outbreak can spread the virus to the brain and eyes. In pregnant women, herpes can spread to the child.

Your doctor might give you antiviral medicine to prevent an outbreak if you have herpes. Antiviral medicines can also shorten outbreaks and lower your chance of spreading the infection.

Use Medication the Right Way

Remember to take medication exactly how your healthcare professional tells you. You may feel better in 1 to 2 days. Don’t stop medication just because you’re feeling better. You need to finish taking the medication so you don’t get sick again.

Managing Sores

We want to prevent sores from spreading to other parts of your body or to other people.

  • Keep the sores clean and dry

  • Try not to touch the sores

  • Wash your hands if you touch a sore

Wearing loose-fitting clothes and comfortable underwear can protect sores from irritation and help you feel better.

Transmission: Protecting Family and Friends

Herpes is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI), so Herpes can spread through sex.


Herpes spreads through contact with:

  • A herpes sore

  • The saliva (spit) of someone with oral herpes

  • Skin around the mouth from someone with oral herpes

  • Skin around the genitals from someone with genital herpes

  • Genital fluids from someone with genital herpes

Genital Herpes is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). Usually, herpes is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Oral Herpes can spread through kissing or oral sex.

Herpes can spread during breastfeeding if the child touches a sore.

Herpes does not spread through toilet seats, bedding, swimming pools, silverware, soap, or towels.

You can spread herpes for multiple days before your outbreak starts. So, you could spread herpes without knowing it.

Safe Sexual Practices Around STIs

  1. Protect

Condoms and dental dams prevent the herpes virus from moving between partners during sex. Other birth control methods, like pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms, will not protect you from Herpes and other STIs.

  1. Test

Regularly test for Herpes and other STIs, and talk to your partner about their test results. You can get tested for free or low-cost through

  1. Wait

The best way to prevent herpes or any STI is to not have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. If you or your partner might have a herpes outbreak, do not have sex.