What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is an incurable viral infection that is characterized by painful sores on the genitals.

After an initial or primary infection, herpes viruses establish a period called latency, during which the virus is present in the cell bodies of nerves that attach to the area of the original viral outbreak (e.g. genitals, mouth, and lips). At some point, this latency ends and the virus can become active again. While active, the virus begins to multiply (called shedding) and becomes transmittable again. This shedding may or may not be accompanied by symptoms. During reactivation, the virus multiplies in the nerve cell and is transported outwardly via the nerve to the skin. The ability of herpes virus to become latent and reactive explains the long-term, recurring nature of a herpes infection.

Recurrence of the viral symptoms is usually milder than the original infection. Recurrence may be triggered by menstruation, sun exposure, illnesses that cause fevers, stress, immune system imbalances, and other unknown causes. However, not all patients experience a second outbreak.

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