What You Need to Know About Genital Herpes
Genital herpes is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since the late 1970s, the number of Americans infected with the virus has increased 30 percent to about 45 million (see Genital Herpes Statistics).
The disease affects more than one in five adolescents and adults. It is more common in African Americans than in Caucasians, and is more likely to affect women than men. In the United States, one out of four women is infected with HSV-2.
Compared to 20 years ago, genital herpes is about five times more common in Caucasians ages 12 to 19 and twice as common in adults ages 20 to 29.
Most people have no or few symptoms of genital herpes. When symptoms do occur, they typically appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. The blisters then break, leaving tender ulcers (sores) that may take two to four weeks to heal the first time they occur. Typically, another outbreak can appear weeks or months after the first, but it is almost always less severe and shorter than the first outbreak. Although the infection can stay in the body indefinitely, the number of herpes outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years.
(Click Genital Herpes Symptoms to learn more, including information on early symptoms.)
Genital herpes can reactivate without causing noticeable bumps, blisters, sores, or other symptoms. Sometimes, symptoms are there but are so mild that they aren't noticed. This is called subclinical shedding. During these times, herpes can be transmitted to an uninfected sex partner, even though there are no symptoms. Subclinical shedding is most frequent in the first year after the initial infection, but it continues on and off for several years. Most new cases of genital herpes are caught from a person with subclinical shedding. This is because people with genital sores often avoid sex, but those with subclinical shedding don't know it. As for recurrent outbreaks, subclinical shedding is more common due to HSV-2 than HSV-1.