Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, affecting about 20% of American adults. While many people carry the herpes virus and never have symptoms, others experience painful genital sores. Here's how you can tell if you've contracted genital herpes.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

The symptoms of genital herpes usually appear within 2 to 20 days of initial exposure to the herpes simplex 2 virus (a similar virus, the herpes simple 1 virus, is much more common, but usually only causes cold sores or oral herpes). The first outbreak is usually the worst, and may be very painful, though in some people the first outbreak is so mild that they mistake it for razor burn, pimples, bug bites, a yeast infection or jock itch. That's why most people who are infected with herpes aren't even aware that they've contracted the disease.

Typically, a herpes outbreak is very painful. At the beginning of the outbreak, the skin around your genitals and anus will become sensitive and inflamed. Blisters will appear, and burst open to become sores. The rash will be painful and may itch, burn or tingle, and it could extend past the genital area onto your thighs and buttocks.

A herpes outbreak is often accompanied by symptoms similar to those of the flu. You'll experience muscle aches and fever, headaches and swollen glands. If herpes sores occur in the urethra, you may experience a burning sensation upon urinating.

Chronic Illness

There is no cure for genital herpes, since it's caused by a virus. If you contract genital herpes, you'll have it for the rest of your life. However, antiviral medications can help control your symptoms and lessen the frequency of your outbreaks. 

Usually, the first outbreak of genital herpes is the worst. Symptoms will eventually disappear, but they could come back from time to time throughout your life, especially during times of stress or illness. As time passes, outbreaks usually become less frequent and less severe. Some sufferers may experience only a few outbreaks during their entire lives.

Treating Herpes

There is no cure for herpes, but antiviral medication can control your symptoms. During an outbreak of genital herpes, keep the area clean and dry. Clean the area under a warm shower and allow it to air dry, or towel dry it gently. Wear loose fitting undergarments and refrain from using any topical creams or lotions not prescribed by your doctor, as these could make it worse.

Preventing the Spread of Herpes

If you have genital herpes, avoid all sexual contact during an outbreak, as this is when you're most contagious. Enjoy sexual contact only between outbreaks, and wear a condom or other latex barrier protection to avoid infecting your partner with  the virus, since you're still contagious in between outbreaks. While antiviral medications can cure herpes or stop you from spreading it, they can make it less likely that you'll spread herpes to your partner.