Genital herpes is a condition that once contracted, never really leaves you. The herpes tend to come and go, but the virus, once contracted, never leaves your system. Genital herpes is caused by one of the two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV): herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Most of the time, HSV-2 is the culprit in genital herpes, while HSV-1 is most often behind the lesions on the face known as cold sores. Any HSV infection is contagious and is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact while there are lesions present.
No matter which type of HSV is contracted, there are two types of infections: primary and recurrent. Most people who contract HSV develop a primary infection. But only a small number of people, around 20%, develop actual sores or blisters.
When sores do develop, they show up 5-6 days after exposure to the virus. The sores last from 2-6 weeks. The sores tend to heal without any scarring. However, the virus remains in the body, dormant within the nerve cells.
The dormant virus can be awakened at any time through various triggers. Such triggers cause the virus to travel from the nerve cells back to the skin, which manifests as recurrent infection. These subsequent attacks have a tendency to be milder than the original, primary infection, though the sores will tend to be in the same location as the earlier ones. There is no way to predict when or how often the attacks will recur.
Anyone who is sexually active can become infected with genital herpes. It is thought that somewhere between 10% and 60% of the population is infected.
Genital herpes is most contagious when the genital region contains visible sores. But the disease can also be contracted where there are no apparent sores. This is called "asymptomatic shedding." If only 20% of those who have HSV develop visible sores, this means that as many as 80% of all those infected with the virus go undiagnosed and can pass on their condition without any knowledge that they have spread a contagious disease. In this manner, someone can become infected by an asymptomatic sexual partner.
If sores do develop, they will be seen within several days after exposure. The sores come in clusters of painful, pus-filled blisters that affect the skin of the genital area. The blisters burst with ease so that many never see them, and find only the aftermath: small red ulcers. The lesions clear within 2-6 weeks during a primary infection, and from 5-10 days for subsequent attacks. The ulcers scab over, then the scab falls off, and last, there is a reddened area that fades as time passes.