Answers FAQ

Genital Herpes FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

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Q:Genital herpes is rarely contagious. True or False?

A:False. Genital herpes is widespread because of its highly contagious nature. It is a common sexually transmitted infection.

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Q:Most people with genital herpes are well aware of their condition. True or False?

A:False. Most people with genital herpes infection do not know they have it. The severity of genital herpes symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Severe outbreaks can occur in some, while others may have minimal symptoms that can easily be mistaken for another condition such as an ingrown hair or insect bite. Still, others may have no symptoms at all.

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Q:You can get herpes only if sores or blisters are present. True or False?

A:False. You can get genital herpes from an infected partner even if the partner shows no signs of the infection.

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Q:Genital herpes is caused by bacteria and may be controlled with antibiotics. True or False?

A:False. Because genital herpes is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help to resolve the infection. Note: It is important to note that there is no cure for herpes and that herpes is a chronic, lifelong infection.

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Q:New or initial genital herpes infections tend to be the most severe. True or False?

A:New or initial genital herpes infections tend to be the most severe, May produce fever and flu-like symptoms and Can cause genital itching, burning, and painful genital blisters. When a person is first infected with the herpes virus, symptoms may or may not occur. If symptoms occur, signs of an initial infection can include: fever and flu-like symptoms, genital itching, burning, and discomfort, vaginal discharge in women, swollen lymph nodes, and a feeling of pressure in the abdomen.

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Q:With genital herpes, one can expect increasing outbreaks over time. True or False?

A:False. A person with genital herpes can expect to have several outbreaks (usually four or five) a year. Over time, fewer outbreaks can be expected. People who have symptoms of genital herpes average five outbreaks a year during the first few years. Most have fewer outbreaks after that time period. The pattern of recurrent outbreaks — how often genital herpes infections return and how long outbreaks last — varies greatly. Some people have many outbreaks each year while others have only a few or none at all.

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Q:How many people in the U.S. are estimated to have genital herpes?

A:45 million. At least 45 million persons in the United States have genital herpes. Across the U.S., about one out of six people 14 to 49 years of age are infected with genital herpes.

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Q:The herpes virus settles permanently in the body closest to what body region?

A:The spinal cord. The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is transmitted through intimate contact with the mucous-covered linings of the mouth or the vagina or the genital skin. The virus enters the linings or skin through microscopic tears. Once inside, the virus travels to the nerve roots near the spinal cord and settles there permanently.

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Q:Once exposed to the herpes virus, lesions usually take 3 to 7 months to develop. True or False?

A:False. Once exposed to the virus, there is an incubation period that generally lasts up to seven days before a lesion develops. An outbreak usually begins within two weeks of initial infection, and manifests as an itching or tingling sensation followed by redness of the skin. Finally, a blister forms.

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Q:What is the name for the period of time when a person feels a herpes outbreak coming on?

A:Prodrome. About half of the people who have recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes feel an outbreak coming a few hours to a couple of days before it happens. They may feel tingling, burning, itching, numbness, tenderness, or pain where the blisters are going to appear. This is called the prodrome.

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Q:What is the name of the process of viral replication and potential spread when no symptoms are present?

A:Viral shedding. The term "shedding" is commonly used to describe an active herpes infection. Shedding occurs when the herpes virus becomes active, travels to the surface of the skin where it replicates, and is expelled, or "shed" from the skin. During the shedding phase, the virus can still be spread from person to person, with or without symptoms. An actively shedding infection that shows no visible symptoms or signs is referred to as "asymptomatic viral shedding."

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