Last updated: October 12, 2022

What is herpes?

It is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a virus. Herpes (HSV-1) generally causes oral lesions, and herpes (HSV-2) generally causes lesions on the genitals (penis or vagina) or the anus.

How do I get it?

A person can only get herpes (HSV-2) infection by having vaginal, oral or anal sex with someone who has herpes (HSV-2). Transmission can occur from an infected partner who does not have a visible sore and may not know that he or she is infected.

Herpes (HSV-1) can also cause genital herpes, but it more commonly causes infections of the mouth and lips, also called fever blisters. Herpes (HSV-1) infection of the genitals can be caused by oral-genital or genital-genital contact with a person who has herpes (HSV-1) infection.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

  • Infected area is usually painful to touch and may itch, burn or tingle during the outbreak
  • Painful inflamed blisters developing around infected area
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever and swollen glands
  • Burning sensation during urination caused by infection of the urethra (where urine is discharged)
  • Burning sensation in the genitals
  • Lower back pain
  • Small red bumps appearing in the genital area following earlier symptoms, later developing into painful blisters, which crust over, form a scab and heal

Most people infected with herpes (HSV-2) are not aware of their infection. However, if signs and symptoms occur during the first outbreak, they can be quite severe. The first outbreak usually occurs within 2 weeks after you are infected, and the sores typically heal within 2 to 4 weeks.

How can I prevent getting herpes?

The best way to prevent getting genital herpes is to avoid sexual contact with an infected person. One way to do this is by practicing abstinence. Abstinence means not having sex with anyone. Another way to prevent getting genital herpes is by having only one partner who only has sex with you.

People who decide to have sex, especially if they have multiple partners, must be responsible for protecting themselves and others from infections. Herpes can occur in genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes. Though not 100% effective, condoms are the best protection. Even if using another birth control method, use a condom if there is a risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection during sex. Also, it is important to avoid abusing alcohol and drugs because they can prevent you from making safe choices to protect your health.

Is there a test and treatment for herpes?

Yes. Only your doctor can diagnose herpes by performing a physical exam and tests. A blood test can tell if you are infected with oral or genital herpes, even if you don’t have symptoms. Your doctor can also confirm herpes infection by testing fluids taken from the sores. If you have herpes, there are medications available to help manage the infection.

While there is no cure for herpes, using herpes treatments is usually very effective in speeding up the healing of sores and preventing them from returning frequently. If you are pregnant, get tested for STIs and HIV early and again late in your pregnancy. If you think you have symptoms, call the Department of Health for confidential referral and treatment.

What happens if I have herpes and I am not treated?

If herpes is not treated, both men and women risk experiencing sores that last longer and occur more frequently.


  • Increased risk for getting HIV
  • Severe illness in people that are immunocompromised
  • Transmission from an infected pregnant woman to her baby can lead to serious infections in the baby

For more information, referrals or CONFIDENTIAL treatment, contact:

STI Prevention and Care Program
Anne Arundel County Department of Health
1 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Suite 200
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

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