Genital herpes. It’s an embarrassing sexually transmitted disease that no one ever wants to be diagnosed with, but millions are.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on a steep and steady climb. And herpes is no exception: An estimated 13% of the world’s population has it, the World Health Organization says.

Most STDs are spread through the exchange of bodily fluids, but some, including the herpes simplex virus, can spread through skin-to-skin contact, according to the National Library of Medicine.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is most often caused by the herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2). But the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) notes it can also be caused by HSV-1, more commonly known as the cause of oral herpes, or cold sores. How do you get genital herpes? The virus is easily spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. But, according to ASHA, the virus can lay dormant in the body for days, weeks or even years, only coming to the surface when triggered by something else happening in the body. This latency not only makes it difficult to detect, but hard to pinpoint where and when it was contracted.

Genital herpes symptoms

Unlike other STDs, where patients typically have little to no obvious symptoms, genital herpes can show up as small, red and painful blisters that can appear anywhere in the genital area, ASHA notes. This includes the penis, vulva, anus and thighs. The blisters will pop, leaving open sores that will eventually scab over.

Genital warts are similar to herpes lesions in that they both stem from a sexually transmitted infection. However, genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They are also similar in that they can both be spread by skin-to-skin contact. The main difference between the two conditions, according to the CDC, is that genital warts are usually painless and that infection with that virus can be prevented with an HPV vaccine given at a young age.

According to the CDC, many people don’t have symptoms or they go unnoticed or are mistaken for something else. Because of this, the ASHA estimates that 90% of infected persons don’t even know they are infected.

The symptoms of genital herpes can vary, depending on the individual and the severity of the infection. Dr. Jeffery Cohen, a herpes infection expert at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, stated that, “It’s the first episode that is particularly important to treat.” That’s because the first outbreak is often the most severe. In addition to sores, you may experience a fever and body aches, while nearby lymph nodes might be swollen and painful.

The main difference between genital herpes in women and genital herpes in men is the difference in the genital parts. They have the same sores, but on different parts of their bodies.

The Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms as follows:

In women, the blisters or sores caused by genital herpes can appear on the vulva, vagina and cervix. In men, blisters will show up on the penis and scrotum.

Both genders may see sores on the anus, buttocks or thighs.

Genital herpes treatment

Although infection with the herpes virus is lifelong, genital herpes medications make it more bearable.

The Mayo Clinic explains antivirals are the primary treatment for genital herpes. These medications can help reduce the severity and duration of outbreaks and can also reduce the risk of passing the virus on to others. Acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir are the three main medications used. They are taken daily and prescribed based on the severity of the virus, the type of herpes infection and the patient’s sexual habits.

Meanwhile, Cohen and his team are working on developing herpes vaccines, and numerous studies have looked at different herpes vaccine candidates.

“There are two different types of vaccines being developed for herpes virus,” Cohen explained. “One is a vaccine that would prevent infection in people who have not been infected with the virus.” Cohen’s team is working on this type of vaccine.

“The other type of vaccine is for people who are already infected,” he added. “The idea is that we could boost their immune system so that they have fewer recurrences.”