Genital herpes is an infection of the genitals (penis in men, vulva and vagina in women) and surrounding area of skin. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus. The buttocks and anus may also be affected. There are two types of herpes simplex virus:
- Type 1 herpes simplex virus is the usual cause of cold sores around the mouth. It also causes more than half of cases of genital herpes.
- Type 2 herpes simplex virus usually only causes genital herpes. It can sometimes cause cold sores.
How do you get genital herpes?
Genital herpes is usually passed on by skin-to-skin contact with the affected area of someone who is already infected with the virus. The moist skin that lines the mouth, genitals and back passage (anus) is the most susceptible to infection. This means that the virus is most commonly passed on by having vaginal, anal or oral sex, or just close genital contact with an infected person. For example, if you have a cold sore around your mouth, by having oral sex, you may pass on the virus that causes genital herpes.
Herpes simplex virus can also enter through a cut or break in the ordinary skin on other parts of the body. In this way the virus can sometimes affect fingers, hands, knees, etc, if they are in contact with another person's infected area. It is called a whitlow when it is on the fingers.
You are not likely to re-infect yourself with your own virus through accidental touching, or to catch back your own virus from an infected partner, on a different part of your own body.
Did you find this information useful?
- Herpes simplex - genital; NICE CKS, September 2012 (UK access only)
- 2014 UK National Guideline for the Management of Anogenital Herpes; British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (2014)
- Management of Genital Herpes in Pregnancy; British Association of Sexual Health and HIV and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Oct 2014)
- 2017 European guidelines for the management of genital herpes; International Union against Sexually Transmitted Infections (IUSTI) (2017)
- 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines - Genital Herpes; Centers for Disease Control and prevention CDC, (2015)
- Hollier LM, Wendel GD; Third trimester antiviral prophylaxis for preventing maternal genital herpes simplex virus (HSV) recurrences and neonatal infection. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jan 23 (1):CD004946.
- Kang SH, Chua-Gocheco A, Bozzo P, et al; Safety of antiviral medication for the treatment of herpes during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2011 Apr 57(4):427-8.
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