Written on July 18, 2023 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. 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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News that you or your partner have a sexually transmitted disease can be devastating. The good news is that treatment exists for STDs, and the infections are preventable. One of the most common STDs in the U.S. is genital herpes. While all STDs can be preventable and treatment options are available, not all STDs are curable. Let’s further focus on genital herpes and whether genital herpes can be cured.
Nearly 68 million Americans were infected with an STD in 2018. This staggering figure translates to approximately one in five people in the United States having a sexually transmitted infection. In 2021, over 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were reported in the United States. The CDC estimates new cases of genital herpes infection to be around 572,000 each year in the U.S.
Genital herpes is caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV1) or type 2 (HSV2). Though both types can cause genital herpes, HSV1 is more associated with oral herpes. HSV2 is mainly linked to genital herpes.[4,5] HSV1 infection is usually acquired during childhood. An estimated 12% of people 14 – 49 years old have HSV2 infection in the U.S. HSV2 infection is more common in women than men (14-49 years old), with prevalence rates of 15.9% versus 8.2%, respectively. It is thought that after infection, the virus and the immune response against the virus continue throughout life.
Genital herpes is transmitted primarily through sexual contact with HSV-infected lesions, mucosal surfaces, and genital or oral secretions.[4,5] Typically, someone can get HSV2 infection during genital contact with someone who has genital HSV2 infection. However, oral sex from someone infected with oral HSV1 infection can lead to genital HSV1 infection.
Most of the time, people do not know they are infected with HSV.[4,5] Many people with genital herpes do not realize they are infected because they do not have symptoms or have very mild symptoms. Sometimes they're unsure whether bumps stem from a normal friction burn, or if it's herpes. Even if you show no signs or symptoms, you can still shed the HSV. Asymptomatic HSV2 infections have genital HSV shedding on 10.2% of days, whereas symptomatic infections shed the virus on 20.1% of days.
If symptoms of genital herpes do occur, herpes lesions can appear as vesicles or small blisters on or around the genitals, rectum, or mouth.[4,5] Vesicles can break and leave painful ulcers that take up to four weeks to heal after the first herpes infection. An initial herpes infection has an average incubation period of four days after exposure. Longer duration of herpes lesions, increased shedding of the virus, and systemic symptoms such as fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, or headache also describe the initial herpes outbreak or episode.
Subsequent or recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes are common and have a prodromal component, such as localized genital pain or tingling or shooting pains in the legs, hips, or buttocks, which occur hours to days before the eruption of lesions.[4,5] Recurrent episodes have shorter symptom duration and are less severe than the initial herpes outbreak. The frequency of outbreaks may decrease over time.
Genital herpes can be treated with antiviral medications.[4,6] Antiviral drugs are the mainstay of genital herpes management and help relieve symptoms. The goals of treatment are to prevent symptomatic genital herpes recurrences and suppress the virus to prevent transmission to sexual partners. There are currently three U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved antiviral medications for genital herpes: acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir.
Treatment exists for genital herpes, but it cannot be cured.[6,7] Outbreaks can be avoided, and the duration is shortened with appropriate use of antiviral medications.[6,7] Treatment can also help reduce the chance of transmitting the HSV infection to others. It is essential to recognize that genital herpes is not curable but is a manageable condition with the proper treatment.
The most certain way to prevent STDs, including genital herpes, is to refrain from sexual contact or be in a long-term, mutually exclusive monogamous relationship with a partner. The correct and consistent use of latex condoms can help decrease, but not eradicate, transmission of genital herpes. Additionally, appropriate treatment with antiviral medications against genital herpes can be part of the strategy for prevention.
Via Everlywell, you can get STD treatment online with an on-demand appointment when you need it. If you think you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection or disease, you can potentially connect with a clinician in less than two hours. You can speak privately with a licensed healthcare provider where you can discuss your sexual health concerns and get answers to your questions. During the appointment, the clinician can provide personalized recommendations and next steps based on your symptoms and exposure history, including STD testing or prescription medication, if appropriate.