How to Recognize & Treat Genital Herpes in Females

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The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) affecting more than 400 million people worldwide. It has two types, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both can cause an outbreak of genital sores, but HSV-2 is considered genital herpes.

Women have a higher rate of contracting genital herpes than men for a few reasons. First, it's more easily transmitted from men to women during penetrative sex. Around 8% of men age 14–49 have HSV-2 infection, while twice as many women of the same age group—about 16%—test positive.

This article will explain common genital herpes symptoms in women, its diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

woman patient talking with doctor

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Genital Herpes in Females

Men are more likely to be asymptomatic and may not be aware they have genital herpes. This contributes to higher transmission rates from men to women. About 1 in 5 women experience infection compared to just 1 in 8 men.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes in Women

Genital herpes outbreaks in women can range from asymptomatic (no symptoms) to severe. Some women don't even know they have the virus, but it can still be passed.

It's essential to bring up any unusual skin changes or symptoms with your healthcare provider. Once a person has become infected with herpes simplex virus, it lives in the nerve cells for life regardless of the presence of symptoms.

Outbreaks

The most common symptom of genital herpes in women is a change in the genital or rectal skin, also known as an outbreak. The first signs of genital herpes usually show up two to 12 days after having sexual contact with someone who has herpes. Around 572,000 new genital herpes infections are documented in a single year.

Outbreaks can show up in areas including:

  • Labia (folds of skin around the vagina)
  • Mouth
  • Inside the vagina
  • Urinary tract
  • Cervix (lower part of the uterus)
  • Buttocks and thighs

Outbreaks can last anywhere from two to four weeks. Not all genital herpes outbreaks look the same, though. Some common skin changes include:

  • Small red blisters
  • Tiny white bumps
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Ulcers or lesions

Typically, the lesions start out as fluid-filled blisters that break and turn into painful ulcers, which may take two to four weeks to heal after the initial infection. These usually heal more quickly in future outbreaks.

A mild outbreak may be mistaken for ingrown hairs, an insect bite, or pimples.

Flu-Like Symptoms

Flu-like symptoms are typically experienced during an initial outbreak and taper off over time. Other symptoms of genital herpes in women include:

Diagnosis

If you have symptoms or suspect you've been infected with genital herpes, make an appointment with your healthcare provider, who can diagnose a herpes infection. They may also run other STI tests simultaneously. The two main types of tests are:

  • Virologic tests: Used mainly for outbreaks, a gynecologist or healthcare provider can swab the infected area and have the fluid tested, usually using a method called NAAT (nucleic acid amplification test).
  • Blood (serologic) tests: If you do not have apparent symptoms but want to get tested before engaging with a new sexual partner, a blood test that looks for antibodies used to fight infection can detect HSV. However, HSV-1 blood testing cannot distinguish between oral and genital infection.

Female Genital Herpes Treatment

Unlike some other STIs, like chlamydia, HSV lives in the body forever. There is no cure for genital herpes, but there are management strategies. Talk to your healthcare provider about medications and treatments.

Suppression Therapy

Daily suppression therapy through antiviral medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can help prevent recurring outbreaks or make them shorter and less severe. Antiviral drugs for genital herpes include Zovirax (acyclovir) and Valtrex (valacyclovir).

While these medications may help reduce outbreaks and transmission to sexual partners, they do not completely prevent the virus from spreading, so other precautions can be used to reduce the risk of transmitting it to your partner.

Home Remedies

Home remedies don't alter the course of an outbreak, but they can make you more comfortable and prevent infection of open sores. These include:

  • Make urination more comfortable: Women with painful sores on and around the labia can urinate in a tub of water or low sitz bath (shallow pan of warm water) to avoid burning pain.
  • Boost your immune system with vitamins and minerals such as zinc, and vitamin C, which have been shown to reduce herpes outbreaks, reduce inflammation, and speed the healing of outbreaks.
  • Take L-lysine: L-lysine is an amino acid found to shorten the length of outbreaks.
  • Wash your hands: To avoid infecting open sores, wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom or before applying medications.
  • Reduce Stress: Stress can increase your sensitivity to pain during a herpes outbreak so consider gentle mind-body therapies like meditation, yoga, and guided imagery.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

Look for topical treatments that contain lidocaine or benzocaine, as they have a numbing effect and can help reduce the sensation of itching and pain. Also, consider oral pain relievers like Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen), which can help ease the pain of an outbreak and reduce swelling.

Prevention

There are a few realistic ways to practice safe sex, whether you're infected with herpes or not. Since women are more susceptible to the virus, it's essential to take extra precautions when engaging with a new sexual partner. If you choose to engage in sexual intercourse, you expose yourself to potential STIs. Remember that not everyone who has herpes is aware of it.

Prevention includes:

  • Condoms: Wearing condoms consistently has decreased the risk of herpes transmission from men to women by 96% and from women to men by 65%. Because herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact, the barrier method does not cover all infected skin.
  • Abstinence during outbreaks: If you or your partner are having an outbreak, avoiding sex is one of the most important ways to reduce the risk of herpes transmission.
  • Regular STI testing: Self-monitoring your body for unusual activity and getting tested regularly is key to preventing infection or successfully treating a new herpes outbreak.
  • Open communication: Ask when the last time a new sexual partner was tested, suggest getting new tests together, or find other ways to explore intimacy.
  • Monogamy: Long-term relationships with one sexual partner can lower your risk of contracting genital herpes (or any STIs) after both partners have been tested.

Summary

Women have a higher rate of contracting genital herpes than men because it's easily transmitted from men to women during penetrative sex. Men are also more likely to be asymptomatic. There is no cure for genital herpes, but there are treatments in the form of anti-viral mediations, home remedies, and practicing safer sex.

For women, it's important to know the signs of genital herpes and advocate for themselves by getting tested and opening a line of communication with all sexual partners. Safer-sex practices, and self-monitoring can help prevent the spread of herpes.

A Word From Verywell

Get comfortable talking about STIs, educating yourself about safe sex practices, and understanding your body. Sexual literacy is crucial for a safe, fun, and thriving sex life. For those not currently infected, remember that not everyone who has herpes is aware of it.

If you choose to engage in sexual intercourse, you expose yourself to potential STIs. If you've been diagnosed, allow yourself to feel all of the emotions arising but know that herpes is just a virus and does not define you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can be mistaken for genital herpes in females?

    A few other conditions have similar symptoms as genital herpes. This can lead to confusion and a potential misdiagnosis. Bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections can cause itching, swelling, and in rare cases, sores or blisters in the genital region. Other STIs like human papillomavirus (HPV) or syphilis can also be mistaken for genital herpes.

  • Is genital herpes more common in men or women?

    Genital herpes is more common in women. Around 8% of men have HSV-2 infection, while about 16% of women test positive. Herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact, putting women at a higher risk during sexual intercourse.

  • How is female genital herpes diagnosed?

    That depends on whether you're experiencing an outbreak. If you currently have blisters or sores, a healthcare provider will gently take a swab (sample) of fluid and test it. If you suspect you have herpes but are not showing symptoms, a blood test can help identify the virus.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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