Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)

Patient Education Materials

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It is caused by a virus that cannot be cured. Herpes is easy to catch through direct physical contact with an infected person. The virus causes painful blisters and sores with scabs. The blisters and the areas under the scabs contain lots of active virus. Herpes is most easily caught (contagious) when sores are present. Even when there are no sores, people infected with herpes can pass the virus to their sexual partners. If you or your partner is infected, you can catch or spread herpes through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Millions of Americans are infected with herpes.


Herpes infection symptoms usually occur between 4 and 21 days after contact. The first breakout of HSV may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms such as a fever or headache (although someone with a first-time infection may have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all)
  • Small, painful blisters that appear on the vagina, cervix, urethra (opening to bladder), or anal area in women and on the penis and anus in men between 2 and 21 days after infection
  • Burning and/or pain when passing water (urination)
  • Genital irritation, itching, and discharge
  • Swelling, reddening, or a feeling of pressure in the groin

The first herpes outbreak can last about 3 weeks. The sores become crusty, then scab and heal.

When herpes returns

After the first outbreak of herpes, about 50 to 75 percent of people have another infection within 3 months. The symptoms are often milder. There are fewer sores, and they may heal faster. Herpes returns about 20 percent more often in men than women. Nobody knows what causes the herpes virus to return. People who are ill and under stress seem to have more outbreaks.


Although it is rare, sometimes you can reinfect yourself in another place on your body. If you scratch or rub active herpesblisters or ulcers and then touch another location on your body, you may spread the virus. Areas that are most often infected are the eyes, mouth, the genital area, and any area of broken skin. To avoid reinfection, don’t touch the sores. If you do touch a sore, wash your hands immediately. You may want to cover the sores with a clean, dry bandage.

Complications for newborns 

A pregnant woman with new or recurrent active herpes may have the virus in the birth canal. As the baby goes through the birth canal, the baby can get infected (neonatal herpes). Serious problems for newborn babies can include:

  • Skin blisters over much of the body
  • Severe brain damage leading to mental retardation

Tell your doctor if you have ever had herpes or if you think you have been exposed to the herpes simplex virus. You will be watched closely.

If you have active herpes at the time of delivery, a cesarean section is normally done.

It is very important for a pregnant woman to get good prenatal care to prevent health problems for her baby.


Your doctor may be able to see if you have herpes by looking at the sores. A sample of the cells can be taken from the blisters or sores and sent for testing.


Genital herpes never leaves your body. It stays in the nerve root and may come back again and again. Your doctor can prescribe medicines that ease the pain, speed healing,and lessen the number of outbreaks.

Once you have herpes, you should always use a latex condom with spermicide when having sex. Even if you have no symptoms of an outbreak, use a latex condom with spermicide. The virus can be spread to your partner even when there are no sores.

Talking to your partner

One of the most important things you must do now is discuss the infection with your partner. It is important to understand how the virus is transmitted and treated. A few things to remember:

  • One of you may have been infected a while ago and may not have realized that you had the virus.
  • Try not to blame yourself or your partner.
  • Many people with the herpes virus have full, satisfying lives.

Reduce your risks

If you have sex, you could be at risk for having an STD. See your doctor to be tested. Following are some ways to reduce your risk.

  • Don’t have sex. Not having sex is the only sure way to prevent STDs.
  • Limit your sexual partners. The best protection is to have sex with only one person who is free of infection and who does not have sex with other people.
  • Know your partner. Talk with your partner before you have sex. You should know your partner’s past sexual history. Has your partner ever had an STD? How many sexual partners has he or she had?
  • Look before you have sex. Do not be afraid to look before you have sex. If you see any sores, a rash, or discharge, talk to your partner about it. But remember, you can’t always tell by looking.
  • Always use a condom. Protect yourself by using latex condoms with spermicide every time you have sex. Carry them with you and be sure to use them. Using condoms the right way is very, very important. For protection against pregnancy, use a spermicidal foam, jelly, or cream along with a condom.
  • Get regular STD check-ups. You should get a regular check-up for STDs every 6 months if:
    • You have sex with more than one partner
    • You have sex with a new partner
    • Your partner has sex with others

Just because you have cured an STD doesn’t mean you can’t get it again. You can be reinfected after treatment as often as you are exposed to each STD.

Use condoms the right way

Except for not having sex (abstinence), latex condoms give the best protection from any sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Condoms are helpful only if they are used the right way.

Note: If you or your partner has an allergy to latex, talk with your doctor.

Important steps for using condoms correctly:
  1. Use a latex condom every time you have sex.
  2. When using a lubricant, do not use anything oil-based like Vaseline. Use only water-based lubricants like K-Y Jelly
  3. Always put the condom on before the penis touches or enters the vagina.
  4. After ejaculation, the man should withdraw from the vagina while the penis is still erect. While taking the penis out of the vagina, hold onto the rim of the condom. This will keep it from slipping off.
  5. Pull the condom and the penis out of the vagina together.