It is normal to be worried after finding out that you have genital herpes. But know that you are not alone. Millions of people carry the virus. Although there is no cure, genital herpes can be treated. Follow your health care provider's instructions for treatment and follow-up.
One type of herpes virus stays in the body by hiding within nerve cells. It can remain "asleep" (dormant) for a long time. The virus can "wake up" (reactivate) at any time. This can be triggered by:
Physical or emotional stress
The pattern of outbreaks varies widely in people with herpes. Some people carry the virus even though they've never had symptoms. Others may have only one outbreak or outbreaks that occur rarely. Some people have regular outbreaks that occur every 1 to 4 weeks.
To ease symptoms:
Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin to relieve pain.
Apply cool compresses to sores several times a day to relieve pain and itching.
Women with sores on the vaginal lips (labia) can try urinating in a tub of water to avoid pain.
Doing the following may help sores heal:
Wash sores gently with soap and water. Then pat dry.
DO NOT bandage sores. Air speeds healing.
DO NOT pick at sores. They can get infected, which slows healing.
DO NOT use ointment or lotion on sores unless your provider prescribes it.
Wear loose-fitting cotton underwear. DO NOT wear nylon or other synthetic pantyhose or underwear. Also, DO NOT wear tight-fitting pants.
Genital herpes cannot be cured. Antiviral medicine (acyclovir and related drugs) may relieve pain and discomfort and help the outbreak go away faster. It may also reduce the number of outbreaks. Follow your provider's instructions about how to take this medicine if it has been prescribed. There are two ways to take it:
One way is to take it for about 7 to 10 days only when symptoms occur. This typically shortens the time it takes for symptoms to clear up.
The other is to take it daily to prevent outbreaks.
Generally, there are very few if any side effects from this medicine. If they occur, side effects may include:
Nausea and vomiting
Consider taking anti-viral medicine daily to keep outbreaks from developing.
Taking steps to keep yourself healthy can also minimize the risk of future outbreaks. Things you can do include:
Get plenty of sleep. This helps keep your immune system strong.
Eat healthy foods. Good nutrition also helps your immune system stay strong.
Keep stress low. Constant stress can weaken your immune system.
Protect yourself from the sun, wind, and extreme cold and heat. Use sunscreen, especially on your lips. On windy, cold, or hot days, stay indoors or take steps to guard against the weather.
Preventing the Spread of Herpes
Even when you do not have sores, you can pass (shed) the virus to someone during sexual or other close contact. To protect others:
Let any sexual partner know that you have herpes before having sex. Allow them to decide what to do.
Use latex or polyurethane condoms, and avoid sex during symptomatic outbreaks.
DO NOT have vaginal, anal, or oral sex when you have sores on or near the genitals, anus, or mouth.
DO NOT kiss or have oral sex when you have a sore on the lips or inside the mouth.
DO NOT share your towels, toothbrush, or lipstick. Make sure dishes and utensils you use are washed well with detergent before others use them.
Wash your hands well with soap and water after touching a sore.
Consider using daily anti-viral medicine to limit viral shedding and reduce the risk of passing the virus to your partner.
You may also want to consider getting your partner tested even if they have never had an outbreak. If you both have the herpes virus, there is no risk of transmission.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your health care provider if you have any of the following:
Symptoms of an outbreak that worsen in spite of medicine and self-care
Symptoms that include severe pain and sores that do not heal
Workowski KA, Berman S; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2010 Dec17;59(RR-12):1-110. PMID: 21160459 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21160459.
Cynthia D. White, MD, Fellow American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Group Health Cooperative, Bellevue, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.