We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

Herpes results from infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It causes sores or blisters to form in or around the mouth or genitals, alongside other symptoms.

photo of woman covering face with mirror over sky background for article on herpesShare on Pinterest
Maria Maglionico/EyeEm/Getty Images

There are two types of HSV:

  • herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) causes oral herpes, which usually affects the mouth and surrounding skin but can also affect the genital region.
  • herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) typically causes genital herpes, usually sexually transmitted.

There is no cure for herpes, but treatment can help manage symptoms and reduce the likelihood of outbreaks recurring and transmission to partners.

HSV is a common virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 67% of people under age 50 globally have an HSV-1 infection, and 13% under age 50 have an HSV-2 infection.

In this article, we describe the symptoms of genital and oral herpes, how to treat them, and how to prevent these infections.

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), with roughly 572,000 new infections developing each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, a person with genital herpes might not have symptoms or have only mild symptoms. Most people may not know they have it. Approximately 87.4% of 14-49 year-olds who have genital herpes do not have a clinical diagnosis.

The characteristic symptoms of genital herpes are small blistering lesions, also called cold sores when on the face, usually found around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. The fluid-filled blisters burst and then turn into small, painful sores that can last for two-to-four weeks after they break open.

Learn more about cold sores here.

Sometimes, particularly with their first outbreak of genital herpes, people can have additional symptoms which affect their whole bodies, such as:

After a person has an initial outbreak of genital herpes, they are likely to have more because herpes never goes away entirely. Later outbreaks of herpes are generally milder than the first.

Genital herpes is primarily caused by HSV-2 but it can also be caused by HSV-1.

HSV-2 infection is usually spread only by genital contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. A person can also get a genital HSV-1 infection by having oral sex with someone who has an oral HSV-1 infection.

The genital herpes virus cannot spread through general contact with objects, such as toilets, doorknobs, or towels.

Learn more about genital herpes here.

More than half of American adults have oral herpes. Some estimates say up to 80% of American adults have oral herpes.

Oral herpes is primarily caused by HSV-1, although it is also possible to have an HSV-2 infection around the mouth.

A person with an oral herpes outbreak may first feel itching, burning, or tingling around the mouth, lips, or tongue. Later, cold sores or small blisters may develop in these areas or anywhere on the skin.

Roughly four to six days after these cold sores start leaking, they start healing by forming a crust. Outbreaks of oral herpes can last for two to three weeks, which can be shorter than the two to six weeks of a genital herpes outbreak.

Learn more about cold sore stages here.

The following images can help with identifying forms of herpes:

Learn more about how to visually identify herpes here.

People who develop symptoms of herpes may first experience tingling, itching, or burning, then notice sores or blisters forming around the mouth or genitals.

Symptoms tend to develop 2–20 days after exposure to the virus.

Oral herpes symptoms

Oral herpes causes blisters, sometimes called fever sores or cold sores, to develop in or around the lips and mouth.

Sometimes these blisters form elsewhere on the face or tongue, and more rarely on other areas of skin.

The sores usually last 2–3 weeks at a time before clearing up.

Genital herpes symptoms

These sores tend to develop on the penis, around or inside the vagina, on the buttocks, or on the anus, though they can form on other areas of skin.

Herpes can also cause pain when urinating, and changes in vaginal discharge.

The first time a person develops the sores, they may last 2–6 weeks before clearing up.

Soon after this initial outbreak, symptoms may recur frequently. Over time, outbreaks may occur less often and the symptoms typically become less severe.

Initial episode symptoms

These occur when a person first develops the infection.

Alongside sores or blisters, herpes may cause:

  • pain and itching
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • a fever
  • fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell

In most cases, the lesions heal without long-term scarring.

Recurring symptoms

Symptoms that reappear are similar to the initial symptoms. However, they tend to be less severe and last for shorter periods.

Research suggests that around 33% of people with oral herpes and 50% of those with genital herpes experience recurring symptoms.

During each recurrence, symptoms of oral herpes tend to last 8–10 days, according to the American Sexual Health Association.

Symptoms of a genital herpes recurrence also last 8–10 days, and there will be fewer sores than in the initial phase. A person can pass on genital herpes for 2–5 days during a recurrence.

When HSV is present on the skin, it can easily pass from person to person through contact with the moist skin of the mouth and genitals, including the anus.

The virus may also spread through contact with other areas of the skin and the eyes.

A person cannot contract HSV by generally touching an object or a surface, such as a washbasin or a towel.

Infection can occur in the following ways:

  • having vaginal or anal sex without using barrier protection, such as a condom
  • sharing sex toys
  • having any other oral or genital contact with a person who has herpes

The virus is most contagious between when symptoms first appear and before they heal. Less commonly, a person can transmit the virus when symptoms are not present.

If a person with genital herpes has sores while giving birth, the virus can pass on to the baby.

HSV and HIV

People with genital herpes have a higher risk of contracting and passing on HIV, as sores in the skin can facilitate HIV’s ability to infect the body.

HSV-2 increases the number of CD4 cells in the genital lining where HSV-2 lesions occur, which can raise the risk of infection if a person is exposed to HIV.

Also, people with HIV have weakened immune systems, increasing the risk of more severe complications.

For example, if a person has oral herpes and a weakened immune system, they may have a higher risk of developing keratitis, a type of eye inflammation, or encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain.

If a person has a weakened immune system and genital herpes, there is, rarely, a higher risk of developing inflammation of the brain, eyes, esophagus, lungs, or liver, as well as widespread infection.

Learn more about HIV here.

Because a person might not have symptoms even if they have herpes, it can be difficult to know when to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Planned Parenthood recommends that a person see a healthcare professional as soon as they notice sores on or around their genitals. Other STIs, such as syphilis, can have similar symptoms but require different treatment. The American Sexual Health Association also recommends seeing a doctor to get a culture of any lesion or cold sore a person notices.

People may wish to take an at-home STI test before seeing a doctor. However, at-home tests should not replace professional diagnosis and treatment.

Learn about at-home herpes tests here.

There are several treatment options for both oral and genital herpes:

Home remedies

People should not try to treat herpes with home remedies without speaking to a doctor first. No research supports the effectiveness of home remedies in treating herpes symptoms.

The following could help relieve sone discomfort from herpes symptoms in some people:

  • taking pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • bathing in lightly salted water or soaking in a warm sitz bath
  • squirting water from a bottle or bidet onto blisters to ease pain while urinating
  • applying aloe vera gel to sores
  • applying petroleum jelly to the affected areas
  • wearing loose clothing to avoid irritation
  • refraining from sexual activity, even with protection, until symptoms have gone
  • applying a cream or lotion to the urethra before urinating, such as one that contains lidocaine

Some people find that using ice packs help. However, never apply ice directly to the skin — wrap it in a cloth first.

Learn more about home remedies for herpes here.

Medication

No drug can get rid of the herpes virus. However, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, such as acyclovir, to prevent the virus from multiplying.

Meanwhile, over-the-counter herpes treatments, often creams, can help manage tingling, itching, and pain.

To significantly lessen the duration of an outbreak, start treatment within 24 hours of initial symptoms, for example, as soon as the tingling begins.

If a person uses antiviral medication, symptoms may resolve 1–2 days more quickly than if they had used no treatment. Medication may also reduce the severity of symptoms.

If a person has fewer than six recurrences of genital herpes per year, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication at each recurrence.

If a person experiences recurrences more frequently, a doctor may recommend taking an antiviral for 6–12 months at a time.

Taking these medications every day for longer periods can significantly reduce the risk of passing herpes to a partner, though it still remains a possibility.

The following strategies can reduce the risk of developing or passing on herpes:

  • using barrier protection, such as condoms, when having sex
  • avoiding sex while symptoms are present
  • avoiding kissing and oral sex when there is a cold sore around the mouth
  • washing the hands thoroughly, especially after touching the affected area, during an outbreak

Some people also find that stress, being tired, illness, skin friction, and sunbathing can trigger recurrences of symptoms.

Identifying and avoiding these triggers can help reduce the number of outbreaks.

The following are common questions and answers about herpes:

Can I still have sex if I have herpes?

A person with herpes should tell their partners that they have the infection before they have sex. Use a condom at all times, even if a person does not seem to have symptoms.

Learn safe sex tips here.

Prescription antiviral medication can reduce the likelihood of someone with herpes spreading it to their uninfected partner.

Is there a link between genital herpes and HIV?

It is easier for a person with genital herpes to get or transmit HIV infection.

If a person with a herpes infection is genitally exposed to HIV, their risk of acquiring HIV is 2-4 times higher than someone without genital herpes. This is because genital herpes can cause breaks in the skin and make a person more vulnerable to HIV infection.

A person with HIV and genital herpes is more likely to transmit HIV to sex partners.

Learn about at-home HIV tests here.

Can herpes go away?

Herpes does not go away. There are no treatments that can clear the herpes virus from the body. However, prescription medications can make outbreaks shorter and less severe. Over-the-counter products can provide some relief for symptoms.

Learn why there isn’t a herpes cure here.

How do I know if I have herpes?

If a person has an active herpes outbreak with visible sores, a physician or specialist such as a dermatologist can make a diagnosis based on a physical examination. If the physical symptoms alone are not enough, a doctor may take a swab of the sore and send it to a lab for analysis.

If a person does not have physical sores but is concerned, blood tests are available.

People can also take at-home herpes tests, though they should seek a consultation with a doctor to confirm a diagnosis and seek treatment.

Herpes is a viral infection that can cause blisters or sores to develop around the mouth or genitals, though some people never develop symptoms.

Herpes spreads through physical contact with moist areas of the skin, particularly through sexual activity. People can prevent the spread of herpes by practicing safe sex and personal hygiene, such as washing hands during an outbreak.

If a person has an HSV infection, they will have it for the rest of their life. There are currently no medications to cure herpes. However, there are medications to prevent or shorten outbreaks, help manage symptoms, and make it less likely that a person passes genital herpes on to a partner.

A person who suspects they may have herpes should speak to a doctor about diagnosis and treatment.

Read the article in Spanish.