What Is Herpes? An Ob-Gyn Explains How to Protect Yourself

Learn more about the herpes virus and how to ID herpes symptoms.

Herpes is an incredibly common sexually transmitted disease in the United States—yet many people don’t even know they have it. In fact, the CDC estimates that 87 percent of people infected with the genital herpes virus never receive a clinical diagnosis. That’s because most people with herpes actually experience no or few symptoms. Still, an estimated one out of four women and one out of five men have the herpes virus.

Herpes is the name for a group of conditions caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Type 1 is associated with oral herpes, which causes cold sores and blisters around the mouth. HSV-1 often appears during childhood and can be easily contracted through a kiss from a relative. HSV-1 can spread to the genitals during oral sex.

HSV-2 is what most people think of when they talk about herpes. HSV-2, also called genital herpes, spreads easily through breaks in the skin and sexual contact. For those who do experience a genital herpes outbreak, the primary symptom includes blisters and sores around the genitals or mouth. These sores are called vesicles, and they may cause pain, itching, and irritation. Sores in the urethra may make urination painful. Genital herpes outbreaks can also include flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, and body aches.

Certain people are at a higher risk for becoming infected with the herpes virus than others. If your sexual partner has the herpes virus, you’re at an increased risk of catching it. (But remember, statistically, you may already have it yourself!) If you have HIV or AIDS, you’re also at a higher risk of catching it since this disease makes you more vulnerable to catching infections.

Pregnant women may spread herpres to their babies during pregnancy or birth. Neonatal herpes could lead to a potentially fatal herpes infection for the child. If the mother is experiencing genital herpes symptoms close to the delivery date, doctors may recommend a cesarean (c-section) delivery. In babies, the herpes virus will show symptoms of blisters, red eyes, a discharge from the eyes, unusual tiredness, seizures, and breathing problems. If you observe these symptoms in your newborn, contact your doctor immediately.

Although the herpes virus is not curable, it can easily be managed and treated. And yes—you can still have a happy and healthy sex life with herpes.

If you think you may have the herpes virus, learn more about how to treat herpes here.

Isabel Blumberg, MD

This video features Isabel Blumberg, MD. Dr. Blumberg is a clinical instructor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science.

Duration: 3:49. Last Updated On: Nov. 8, 2017, 6:14 p.m.
Reviewed by: Mera Goodman, MD, Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: June 18, 2014
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