The Facts About Genital Herpes

By Stuart Maddin, MD, FRCPC

What you need to know

Millions of Canadian men and women have genital herpes - an infectious, sexually transmitted virus.

Fact: Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease

  • Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus; there are two types of this virus and genital herpes is usually caused by type 2 (known as HSV-2)
  • In 1994, 22% of all people over 12 years of age in the USA were infected with HSV-2
  • The disease is usually transmitted by sexual intercourse, with the virus passing from the infected partner via the skin, vagina, penis, or anus

Fact: Most people don’t know that they have genital herpes

  • The majority of people who are infected with HSV-2 have no symptoms of disease or they do not recognize their symptoms
  • Only about one third of people who first become infected with HSV-2 have symptoms. These symptoms often include fever, headache, genital pain, genital discharge, and blisters.
  • Even if you have no symptoms, genital herpes can be diagnosed by testing your blood for an antibody to HSV-2

Fact: Genital herpes is for life

  • Once the virus infects you, it moves from the skin or membranes around the genitals to the central nervous system, where it remains for life
  • The virus can “wake up” or reactivate to cause a recurrence of the disease. When reactivation occurs, the virus travels down the nerves to the skin. It may cause blisters, genital itching, tenderness, burning, tingling, or redness, but it usually just makes copies of itself with no symptoms.

Fact: Genital herpes can be passed onto your partner even when you don’t have blisters

  • Even when there are no symptoms of genital herpes, the virus can still be active on many different areas of the genitals, including the penis, the area around the anus, the vulva, the cervix, and the urethra, and it can be passed onto a partner during sexual intercourse
  • Because of this virus activity, which is called “asymptomatic shedding”, all people with a history of genital herpes (and even those without such a history) should always use condoms

Fact: Genital herpes can be passed to partner through oral sex

  • Cold sores or fever blisters are also caused by one of the herpes simplex viruses, usually type 1 (known as HSV-1). However, that virus can also cause genital herpes.
  • To avoid passing HSV-1 to your partner, you should not have oral sex if you have a cold sore

Fact: Pregnant women who first acquire genital herpes during late pregnancy can pass the virus onto their babies

  • Pregnant women who first become infected with HSV-2 during the last third of their pregnancies have a low chance of passing the virus to their babies; HSV-2 infection in newborns can cause a serious disease, called neonatal herpes
  • Passing the virus onto the baby is much less likely if the mother has long-established genital herpes
  • Women who have an active case of genital herpes at the time of delivery are usually given a Cesarean section to minimize the risk of neonatal herpes.

Fact: Genital herpes does not destroy your life

  • Being diagnosed with genital herpes can be a great shock but your medical provider should properly respond to your concerns
  • Genital herpes is nothing to be ashamed about - remember that one in 5 other adults are also infected with HSV-2
  • Frequent outbreaks of genital herpes can be managed with drugs. Any of these drugs, called acyclovir (Zovirax®), famciclovir (Famvir®), and valacylovir (Valtrex®), can be taken daily, if necessary, to reduce the number of times the virus reactivates

Take control by reading reputable information on genital herpes; information and support can be found in the rest of this website.


About the author:
Dr. Stuart Maddin is past President of the Canadian Dermatology Association and served as Secretary-General of the International Committee of Dermatology — International League of Dermatological Societies. He is the director of the clinical trials unit at the Division of Dermatology, UBC. Dr. Maddin has also acted in an advisory capacity to the Health Protection Branch (Ottawa), the AAD-FDA Liaison Committee and WHO (Geneva).


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