Genital herpes is one of the most common STDs. As many as 20% of Americans have genital herpes. Herpes symptoms can be so mild that many people never realize they have the disease. Here's what you should know about genital herpes and how to avoid contracting it yourself.

What Herpes Is and How It's Transmitted

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), though it can also be caused by herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the cirus that causes cold sores.

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease. There's no cure for herpes and, while the initial outbreak is often the most severe, symptoms can recur periodically throughout your life, especially at times of stress or illness or during pregnancy or menstruation. Genital herpes is more common in American women than in American men, and you can get it from having unprotected sex with an infected partner, even when your partner isn't showing any symptoms.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Many people who have herpes don't even realize they're infected, because the symptoms of genital herpes can be so mild. Healthy adults often mistake the symptoms of an initial herpes outbreak for a vaginal yeast infection, jock itch or razor burn. However, the symptoms of genital herpes can also be quite painful.

If you contract genital herpes, you'll have your first outbreak two to ten days after exposure to the virus. You'll experience a widespread rash that covers your genital and anus, and can even extend to the thighs and buttocks. Your skin will become first inflamed and sore; you'll then break out in painful blisters that break, ooze and finally heal. You could experience a burning sensation upon urinating, and your herpes rash could itch, burn, tingle and ache.

Genital herpes often causes symptoms similar to the flu, in addition to the skin rash. You might experience muscle aches, fatigue and fever. 

How to Avoid Getting Genital Herpes

The most effective way to avoid getting genital herpes is to abstain entirely from sex, or to maintain an exclusive sexual relationship with a long term partner who has been tested for and found to be free of herpes.

You can avoid contracting herpes from a new sexual partner by always using a latex condom or latex dental dam. Cold sores on the mouth are also caused by a type of herpes virus, and you can contract genital herpes by receiving oral sex from someone who has or gets cold sores. You can also get cold sores on your mouth from giving oral sex to someone who has herpes.

Genital herpes is always contagious, even when symptoms aren't present. Always use protection with a new partner, and make sure you and your partner both get tested for STDs, including genital herpes, before you begin a monogamous relationship. If you know your partner has genital herpes, avoid all sexual contact during an outbreak, and always use condoms or dental dams to protect yourself from contracting herpes during sexual contact with your infected partner.