Medically reviewed on Nov 17, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Nearly 12% of Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are estimated to have type 2 herpes (HSV-2), or genital herpes infection. One of several well-known sexually transmitted infections (STIs), genital herpes, is unique because it’s often “asymptomatic,” presenting with no observable symptoms.2 To that end, it can be difficult to diagnose early unless you regularly test for STIs.
For both men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) and women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB), genital sores are the most common observable genital herpes symptoms. Discharge is less common, but irregular vaginal or penile discharge can be an important clue in identifying whether or not you’re infected.
If you’re concerned that your discharge habits have changed due to a genital herpes infection, we’ll compare penile discharge vs. vaginal discharge below. We’ll also cover several other STIs that cause abnormal discharge and discuss what to expect when it’s time to reach out to a healthcare provider.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that’s most commonly spread during sexual activity. In the family of STIs, the herpes simplex virus is unique for two key reasons:
Herpes is often mistaken for a dermatological condition because its main symptoms are vesicles—lesions or sores on the skin.1 These most often appear on, around, and inside the :
In women and people AFAB, vesicles can also crop up inside the vagina and cervix, making them difficult to see. They look like small blisters that can burst into an ulcer, especially if they’re physically touched, causing soreness and pain. 
A rarer symptom of herpes is discharge. Discharge can basically be divided into two types: penile discharge in men and people AMAB, and vaginal discharge in women and people AFAB.
If you have female sexual anatomy, your menstrual cycle has likely taught you what healthy vaginal discharge looks, feels, and smells like. “Normal” discharge typically carries :
Infections like genital herpes upset your vaginal ecosystem and can impact your discharge. While herpes discharge can look different for different people, the biggest changes you’re likely to notice are :
Discharge is an important part of how the vagina keeps itself clean.3 If you notice any changes in your vaginal discharge, it could indicate the presence of herpes or another infection like :
Noticing any sudden or persistent changes to your vaginal discharge is a strong cue to reach out to a trusted healthcare provider. 
Like women, the most obvious symptom of genital herpes in men is herpes outbreaks in the form of sores on the penis.
Sometimes, herpes-related discharge can stem from these lesions, which can rupture and “leak” or “ooze” fluids. Sometimes—particularly after the virus is first contracted—these can bleed, creating the appearance of bloody discharge. Penile discharge may also carry a strong or unusual odor. 
Generally, any discharge coming out of the penis is a sign of infection. The only exceptions are sexual secretions, like ejaculate or pre-seminal fluids (“precum”).5 Penile discharge could be a sign of genital herpes, but it may also be a symptom of conditions and STIs like :
If you notice penile discharge, it’s a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.
As mentioned, herpes can be very difficult to catch if you don’t regularly test for STIs. Some other symptoms that may occur with an initial herpes outbreak include :
Some people who have herpes also notice sharp, shooting pains in their genitals or lower body a few hours or days before another herpes outbreak.2 Read our guide to answer: “How long does a herpes outbreak last?”
If you’re wondering about recent changes to your discharge habits, consider a sexual health screening. An STD test can be an important tool for identifying whether you have an STI. Unlike type-2 herpes, many other STIs are curable with timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment. 
The following STIs—all of which are curable—may also cause vaginal or penile discharge.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that can result in greater amounts of discharge in women, and abnormal penile discharge in men.6 If you’re a person AFAB with chlamydia, you may also notice spotting between menstrual cycles. 
Other possible symptoms of chlamydia include :
Like herpes, however, chlamydia may also occur with no noticeable symptoms. 
Gonorrhea is another bacterial infection that frequently occurs alongside chlamydia. It may cause vaginal or penile discharge, though gonorrhea can also be asymptomatic. 
Gonorrhea discharge may be :
In women, gonorrhea may also cause menstrual cycle changes: heavier periods or spotting between periods are both common.6 In men, it can also cause testicular swelling. 
In both sexes, gonorrhea may be accompanied by genital itchiness and painful urination or bowel movements. 
Trichomoniasis or “trich” is an STI caused by a parasite that affects the urethra or genitals.6 Trichomoniasis discharge, which can affect both sexes, may be :
Genital itchiness, painful urination, and pain during sex can also be symptoms of trichomoniasis. 
Genital herpes may also be passed from a pregnant mother to her child during labor.1 It’s most communicable when an infected person is having an active outbreak. 
Current health statistics indicate that women and people AFAB tend to contract genital herpes more often than men.1 However, if you’re sexually active, you can still be at risk for genital herpes, no matter your sex or gender.
The primary method healthcare providers use to diagnose genital herpes is sexual health testing, which may screen:
Treatment for herpes typically involves a combination of:
In the US, in particular, having herpes carries a large amount of unfair cultural stigma. For this reason, many healthcare providers recommend counseling to assist with what can be a difficult health diagnosis.
While genital herpes is a chronic condition, both its severity and symptoms can be managed with antiviral medication and consistent care.8 By educating yourself and your partners and prioritizing your sexual health, it’s more than possible to live a fulfilling life—sexually, and overall. 
Sexual healthcare is personal. With Everlywell, you can test for more than 6 common STIs without scheduling an in-person visit with your healthcare provider, or you can receive STD treatment online by speaking with a clinician.
Whether you’re worried about a specific condition like trichomoniasis or just want a concrete survey of your sexual health, every Everlywell at-home test is screened by CLIA-certified labs and physician-reviewed to ensure you receive trustworthy results.
Browse our complete Sexual Health test collection to start prioritizing your sexual health and overall well-being.