Hesperian Health Guides

Genital Herpes

In this chapter:

a woman's genitals with sores
blisters from genital herpes
a woman's genitals with sores

Genital herpes is caused by a virus resulting in painful sores on the genitals or anus that come and go. There is no cure for herpes, but treatment can make herpes less painful.

Herpes spreads when the skin touches the skin especially between sexual partners. Herpes passes to others most easily when there are sores but can also pass to others when there are no sores. People often don't know right away that they have been infected. Other infections spread through genital sores, especially other STIs such as hepatitis B and HIV.

Herpes can be passed to a baby if the person giving birth has herpes sores in the vagina during childbirth. Treatment during the last month of pregnancy can prevent sores from passing herpes during birth. You can plan to give birth in a hospital in case a cesarean section (c-section) is needed.

  • tingling, itching, or painful feeling of skin on the genitals or, less commonly, on the thighs
  • small blisters that burst and form painful, open sores on the genitals

The first time you get herpes sores, they can last for 3 weeks or more. You can have fever, headache, body ache, chills, or swollen lymph nodes in the groin. The next time sores appear, they usually are not as bad as the first time. Once a person has the virus, sores may come and go many times. Even when there are no sores visible, the infection remains in the person's body. To relieve the pain of herpes sores, see How To Feel Better While You Heal From a STI.


There is no cure for herpes, but acyclovir makes the infection milder and less painful. Use acyclovir as soon as signs appear.


Reduce the spread of herpes by not having sex when you have a sore and avoiding skin to skin touching. Use condoms (on the penis or internal condoms for the vagina), even when you have no sore.

Always wash your hands with soap and water after touching a sore so your fingers do not spread the infection to other people in your family.

This page was updated:24 Jan 2023