Frequently Asked Questions about Herpes/HSV 2

What is HSV-2?

Herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), commonly known as genital herpes, is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It belongs to the herpesvirus family (Herpesviridae) along with its cold sore-causing cousin, HSV-1. Once someone is infected with a herpes virus it remains in their system forever, lurking in the cell bodies of neurons between outbreaks.

HSV-1 and HSV-2 appear quite similar under a microscope, but they have different preferred hiding spots in the body. HSV-2 usually resides in a nerve cluster near the base of the spine until it emerges during an outbreak.

How common is HSV-2?

HSV-2 is quite common in the United States, infecting an estimated 776,000 people each year. Most people with HSV-2 don’t know they have it.

How do people get HSV-2?

HSV-2 is typically spread via oral, vaginal, or anal contact with an infected person who is currently having an outbreak. It’s not always easy to tell when an outbreak is occurring, so caution is important. People often spread the virus without knowing they’re infected.

What are the symptoms of HSV-2?

The first outbreak following infection is often the worst. People with repressed immune systems usually suffer the most. However, not everyone will have noticeable symptoms at all. Symptoms typically occur between a couple of days to a few weeks after becoming infected.

Common symptoms for both men and women include:

  • Itching and tingling on or around the genitals and/or anus
  • Small blisters on the genitals, anus, or thighs that eventually break and give way to painful ulcers
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever and swollen lymph nodes

Women can experience additional symptoms such as:

  • Pain during urination due to inflammation of the urethra and urine passing over sores
  • Cervicitis (inflammation of the cervix), indicated by:
    • Painful intercourse
    • Abnormal vaginal discharge
    • Vaginal bleeding that is not associated with menstruation

What happens if HSV-2 goes untreated?

While there is no cure for HSV-2, there are things you can do to manage your infection. Many people with HSV-2 may benefit from counseling to help them cope with the stigma and emotional trauma that often accompanies this disease.

If you do nothing else, make sure to keep the affected area clean during an outbreak and wash your hands frequently. Don’t touch your sores before touching other parts of your body!

Pregnant women with HSV-2 should visit their doctor as soon as possible to ensure a healthy birth. The virus can easily be passed from mother to child if precautions aren’t taken.

How is HSV-2 diagnosed?

As HSV-1 and HSV-2 can't be told apart based on symptoms alone, a laboratory test is necessary. This is usually done via a culture or blood test.

Who should be tested for HSV-2?

Anyone who is currently experiencing symptoms of HSV-2.

If you’ve had any kind of sexual contact with someone diagnosed with or exhibiting symptoms of the disease, you should also be tested.

Tests for HSV-2 can be expensive and a false positive result can be emotionally traumatizing to a patient. For these reasons, HSV-2 is not typically included in a routine STD screening.

What should I do if I am positive for HSV-2?

You should tell any current partners you have as well as anyone you’ve recently had sex with. Make sure to always use condoms and avoid sex during outbreaks.

Can I test for HSV-2 from home?

Yes! You can order a test kit for HSV-2 that will be sent to your home through the mail. If you are interested in taking a real test for HSV-2 from home, please check out our list of home HSV-2 tests.

Is there a treatment for HSV-2?

There currently is no cure for HSV-2, but you can take antiviral medications to shorten the duration of outbreaks and minimize the risk of transmission.