Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Most people never have symptoms, or the symptoms are so mild that people do not know they are infected.
In some people, the disease causes outbreaks of itchy and painful blisters in the genital area. The blisters rupture and turn into oozing shallow sores that may take up to 3 weeks to heal. Sometimes people, especially women, experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, and muscle aches. Women may also notice an abnormal vaginal discharge and pain when they urinate.
After the first (primary) outbreak, the herpes virus stays in the nerve cells close to the spine and becomes inactive. It usually becomes active again from time to time (recurrent outbreaks), traveling down the same nerve and causing more sores. Things like stress, illness, a new sex partner, or menstruation may trigger a new outbreak. As time goes on, the outbreaks happen less often, heal faster, and don't hurt as much.
Once you have been exposed to genital herpes, it usually takes 2 to 14 days to have your first outbreak. Occasionally, a person will first experience symptoms months or even years after being infected. This can make it very difficult to identify the sex partner who was the source of the infection.
Genital herpes infections can be severe in people with impaired immune systems, such as people with HIV.