The Genital Herpes


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Micrograph of round structures.
Virions of the herpes simplex virus are shown here in this transmission electron micrograph. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Genital herpes is a common condition caused by the herpes simplex virus, an enveloped, double-stranded DNA virus that is classified into two distinct types. Herpes simplex virus has several virulence factors, including infected cell protein (ICP) 34.5, which helps in replication and inhibits the maturation of dendritic cells as a mechanism of avoiding elimination by the immune system. In addition, surface glycoproteins on the viral envelope promote the coating of herpes simplex virus with antibodies and complement factors, allowing the virus to appear as “self” and prevent immune system activation and elimination.

There are two herpes simplex virus types. While herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is generally associated with oral lesions like cold sores or fever blisters, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is usually associated with genital herpes. However, both viruses can infect either location as well as other parts of the body. Oral-genital contact can spread either virus from the mouth to the genital region or vice versa.

Many infected individuals do not develop symptoms, and thus do not realize that they carry the virus. However, in some infected individuals, fever, chills, malaise, swollen lymph nodes, and pain precede the development of fluid-filled vesicles that may be irritating and uncomfortable. When these vesicles burst, they release infectious fluid and allow transmission of HSV. In addition, open herpes lesions can increase the risk of spreading or acquiring HIV.

In men, the herpes lesions typically develop on the penis and may be accompanied by a watery discharge. In women, the vesicles develop most commonly on the vulva, but may also develop on the vagina or cervix. The symptoms are typically mild, although the lesions may be irritating or accompanied by urinary discomfort. Use of condoms may not always be an effective means of preventing transmission of genital herpes since the lesions can occur on areas other than the genitals.

Photo of penis with white sored. B) Photo of skin with red raised bumps.
Genital herpes is typically characterized by lesions on the genitals (left), but lesions can also appear elsewhere on the skin or mucous membranes (right). The lesions can be large and painful or small and easily overlooked. (credit b: modification of work by Schiffer JT, Swan D, Al Sallaq R, Magaret A, Johnston C, Mark KE, Selke S, Ocbamichael N, Kuntz S, Zhu J, Robinson B, Huang ML, Jerome KR, Wald A, and Corey)

Herpes simplex viruses can cause recurrent infections because the virus can become latent and then be reactivated. This occurs more commonly with HSV-2 than with HSV-1. The virus moves down peripheral nerves, typically sensory neurons, to ganglia in the spine (either the trigeminal ganglion or the lumbar-sacral ganglia) and becomes latent. Reactivation can later occur, causing the formation of new vesicles. HSV-2 most effectively reactivates from the lumbar-sacral ganglia. Not everyone infected with HSV-2 experiences reactivations, which are typically associated with stressful conditions, and the frequency of reactivation varies throughout life and among individuals. Between outbreaks or when there are no obvious vesicles, the virus can still be transmitted.

Virologic and serologic techniques are used for diagnosis. The virus may be cultured from lesions. The immunostaining methods that are used to detect virus from cultures generally require less expertise than methods based on cytopathic effect (CPE), as well as being a less expensive option. However, PCR or other DNA amplification methods may be preferred because they provide the most rapid results without waiting for culture amplification. PCR is also best for detecting systemic infections. Serologic techniques are also useful in some circumstances, such as when symptoms persist but PCR testing is negative.

While there is no cure or vaccine for HSV-2 infections, antiviral medications are available that manage the infection by keeping the virus in its dormant or latent phase, reducing signs and symptoms. If the medication is discontinued, then the condition returns to its original severity. The recommended medications, which may be taken at the start of an outbreak or daily as a method of prophylaxis, are acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: