Published on May 1, 2020 at 8:00 / Updated on November 23, 2020 at 18:51

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It affects the genitals, anus, thighs, buttocks, and groin.

Since most individuals with herpes are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, many people become infected without knowing it. When symptoms do appear, they usually begin within 12 days of infection and last 1 to 3 weeks. They may include the following:

  • Small, painful, fluid-filled sores in the affected areas
  • Itching, tingling, or pain
  • Swollen and tender lymph nodes in the groin
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue

Even after symptoms disappear, the virus remains in the body. People who get herpes are infected for life. Symptoms may therefore reappear, but subsequent outbreaks are generally milder than the first episode. Over time, outbreaks also tend to happen less often. However, symptoms are not guaranteed to become less frequent or less severe.

Causes and triggers

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 or type 2. Most commonly, herpes type 1 causes cold sores around the mouth, while herpes type 2 affects the genitals. However, it's possible for herpes type 1 to also cause genital herpes.

The infection is transmitted through genital contact. An infected person can spread it during unprotected genital, anal, or oral sex or when sharing sex toys. The infection can be passed on even if the person is asymptomatic.

A mother with genital herpes can also transmit it to her child during pregnancy or childbirth. The infection can have serious consequences for the baby.

The following factors can increase the severity and frequency of symptoms:

  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Surgery
  • Fever
  • Menstruation
  • Sun exposure
  • Pregnancy


There is no cure for genital herpes. However, there are oral medications that can reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms.

There are a few simple ways to avoid transmitting the infection:

  • Avoid sexual intercourse when symptoms are present
  • Always use a condom during genital contact
  • Always use a condom or dental dam during oral sex

People with genital herpes should inform their sexual partners to ensure they're aware of the risk of infection. They may need to get tested.

Doctors can test for genital herpes by taking a sample of a sore or by doing a blood test.

When should I see a health care professional?

Speak with your health care provider in the following cases:

  • You have symptoms of genital herpes
  • You had unprotected sex with someone who has genital herpes
For more information:
CATIE - Canada's source for HIV and hepatitis C information
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