Everything You Need To Know About Genital Herpes

Illustration by Sarah C Wintner

Illustration by Sarah C Wintner

Herpes! Even though genital herpes affects over 500 million people, most of us still don’t really understand much about it. I mean, think about it. How many of us really know the difference between oral and genital herpes? Do you really know how contagious it is? Do you really know anything about herpes other than it’s an STI and you don’t ever want it?

Well, I’m giving you a crash course on herpes so that any and all confusion can get cleared up. From the types of herpes you can contract to how to deal if your partner has it, here’s everything you need to know about herpes.

What exactly is herpes?

Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are many kinds of herpes, like oral herpes or–as this article will go into–genital herpes, but it is largely split into two different categories: HSV-1 and HSV-2. I know, this is getting really technical really quickly, but here’s the main thing you need to know about the two of them: HSV-1 usually causes oral infections, while HSV-2 is the strain generally associated with genital herpes. But both can cause the herp on your bits and pieces.


Er, how do I know if I have genital herpes? What do they look like?

pitch perfect herpes

So here are some symptoms of genital herpes:

  • Bumps and blisters: Usually the bumps are small and red. The blisters may be white in color.
  • Itching: Pain, discomfort, and the overwhelming urge to to scratch your bits can occur within two to ten days of initial exposure to the virus.
  • Ulcers: Unpleasant blisters that release pus or blood.
  • Scabs: The aftermath of all of the above.

These symptoms can show up around your genitals, buttocks, mouth, thighs, cervix, scrotum, etc. Not pretty! You might also experience flu-like symptoms such as muscle ache, fever, headache, etc during an outbreak.

But there’s something super important that you need to know: You might not show any of these signs at all. That’s how up to 80 percent of folks with genital herpes don’t know they have it. You know what else is tricky about outbreaks? They’re so unpredictable. Some people never experience these symptoms while others experience symptoms every other week, some every other month, some on and off for years.

How is it transmitted?

So HSV-1–the one associated with oral herpes above all else–can spread to your genitals during oral sex through cold sores or fever blisters on the mouth. HSV-2 is usually contracted from skin to skin mingling downstairs. Also, please note that HSV-2 is SUPER contagious whether you have an open sore or not.

Also, sorry to all of you folks who have a vagina: You have a higher chance of getting herpes than someone with a penis, but someone with a penis can spread it to you easier than someone with a vagina can spread it to someone else. Womp, womp, womp.

Wait, but can I get herpes from a toilet seat or sharing a drink or something?

Can you? I mean, it’s possible, but highly unlikely. I wouldn’t worry about that and neither should you.

Is there a cure?

Nah, unfortunately there’s no cure for herpes. But there are some treatment options you can look into. A prescription antiviral medication won’t make your herpes go away, but they can reduce the number of breakouts, heal sores faster, and minimize the risk of passing it on to someone else.

Is herpes a big deal? I mean, it’s not like you’ll die or anything.

You know, herpes wasn’t a huge deal before medication for its treatment was popularized a few decades ago. So some argue that herpes isn’t a big deal and has been stigmatized for the purposes of companies making money. Fair enough, but an STI is an STI. STIs shouldn’t make you ashamed, but let’s not pretend that they aren’t a pain in the ass. Plus. herpes can be a big deal and pretty dangerous under certain circumstances. Herpes can be super dangerous for pregnant women because a newborn might be infected with it during the childbirth process. Additionally, outbreaks increase the risk of spreading or contracting other STIs/STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Oh, and herpes can trigger bladder problems, which, well, no thanks!

While you probably won’t die from herpes, the stigma–though unfair–is real. When someone gets herpes from a partner, that could trigger a buttload of trust issues and incite shame and anger for the person who is newly infected. So yeah, you won’t die, but having a healthy sex life can be difficult for many.

Okay, so what should I do if I have herpes and I’m in a sexual relationship with someone? 

Well, you should absolutely let your partner know what’s up! Wouldn’t you want to know if someone you were about to get down and dirty with had herpes? Of course you would. While herpes can still be spread even if you’re not experiencing an outbreak, you could take prescription medication to reduce your risk of transmitting it to a partner. Oh, and using protection is a must, dude.

Well what should I do if I found out that my partner has herpes?

Have you engaged in some sexy times with them? Then get tested ASAP. Seriously, go to your nearest Planned Parenthood or try to make an appointment with a gynecologist. I know that it’s scary but you need to keep your sexual health in check.

Also, if you and your partner have been sexually active and they’re just now telling you that they have herpes, you two should have a big talk about your relationship status. You deserve to be in a relationship with someone you trust.


Do you have ay concerns about herpes? Do you have genital herpes and want to share what that experience is like? Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!


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