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Herpes is a common infection that the herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes. One of the main symptoms is a rash of blisters that doctors sometimes refer to as a herpes rash.

A herpes rash usually develops on the genitals or around the mouth, but it can occur nearly anywhere on the body.

There are two types of HSV that can cause a skin rash in different areas: HSV-1 and HSV-2.

HSV-1 typically causes orolabial herpes. It spreads in the saliva and tends to affect the area around the mouth and nose.

HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes and usually spreads through sexual contact. The rash appears around the genitals. Sometimes, it is also responsible for orolabial herpes.

This article will explain the symptoms of a herpes skin rash and explore its causes and treatments. It will also examine some other possible causes of skin complaints that may look similar to herpes.

a woman with herpes skin rash around her mouth. Image credit: Jojo, 2006Share on Pinterest
Herpes skin rashes are common around the mouth but can appear almost anywhere on the body.
Image credit: Jojo, 2006

Herpes causes small sores to appear on the skin. These sores usually develop around the mouth and nose, but they can appear nearly anywhere on the body, including the fingers. Where the rash appears will depend on where and how the person contracted the infection.

The first symptom of a herpes outbreak tends to be a tingling, burning, or itching sensation in the affected area. This initial symptom might occur a day or so before the sores appear.

The sores can be tender, painful, and tingly. They tend to look like clusters of small, fluid filled blisters that become pustules. For a few days to a week, they will break open, ooze fluid, and form a crust before healing over. The rash typically lasts for around 7–10 days.

The first time a rash appears, it may last for different lengths of time depending on the type of herpes. For example, oral herpes symptoms tend to clear up in 2–3 weeks, while genital herpes symptoms usually clear up in 2–6 weeks.

When someone experiences a herpes outbreak for the first time, they may also experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • swollen, red gums
  • swollen lymph glands

Once the virus is inside the body, it invades the nerves that supply the area of the skin it affects and stays there for life. There is currently no cure for this virus, and it tends to reactivate and cause symptoms every so often.

The first outbreak is usually the worst. Although the symptoms of the virus do tend to come back every so often throughout the rest of a person’s life, they are not typically as severe on subsequent occasions.

Learn more about what herpes looks like here.

Herpes rashes tend to look like clusters of small, fluid filled blisters on a small area of the body.

Some other skin conditions that may resemble herpes include:

Contact dermatitis

Having an allergic reaction to an irritant can cause allergic contact dermatitis. Common irritants include antibiotic creams, cosmetics, shampoos, and perfumes. In infants, contact dermatitis may develop in the diaper area.

Contact dermatitis can cause flushing, swelling, and even blistering in the area it affects.

Shingles

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A person with shingles may experience a rash of fluid filled blisters.

Shingles causes a rash of blisters to occur on the skin. The same virus that causes chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus) causes shingles.

The first symptom of shingles tends to be a severe burning or tingling pain on one side of the body. A rash of fluid filled blisters follows a few days to a week later.

These blisters tend to appear in one area of the body, most commonly one side of the trunk, near the waistline. They may be tender to the touch or painful.

The condition usually clears up within 3–5 weeks.

Scabies

An infestation of a microscopic parasite known as the human itch mite, or Sarcoptes scabiei, is what causes scabies.

The mite will burrow into the skin to lay its eggs and deposits its feces. Its presence causes an extremely itchy rash that resembles little pimples, creating flushed, scaly areas on the skin.

Doctors use a class of drugs called scabicides to treat these infestations. These drugs are only available with a prescription.

There are two types of HSV that cause herpes. Although these types are closely related and both spread through bodily fluids and human contact, they transmit in different ways.

The virus does not need to be causing any symptoms for it to spread to another person.

HSV-1, or oral herpes

Most carriers of HSV-1 contracted it when they were infants or children. It can spread through:

  • having skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus
  • kissing
  • sharing items such as lip balm, tableware, or toothbrushes

HSV-2, or genital herpes

Sexual contact tends to be how HSV-2 spreads. HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes, and it can spread in saliva during oral sex. HSV-2 can also pass to an infant during childbirth.

Both forms of the virus enter the nerve cells of the body, where they will remain for life. The virus tends to lie dormant, or asleep, in the cells until something activates it and causes an outbreak of symptoms.

Factors that can lead to an outbreak include:

  • emotional stress
  • illness
  • fever
  • exposure to the sun
  • menstruation
  • surgery

There is currently no cure for herpes, but the sores will usually clear up on their own within a few weeks.

Treatments that will shorten the duration of the outbreak and ease the symptoms are available.

If a person experiences frequent outbreaks, their doctor may recommend taking a pill every day as a means of prevention. This treatment is known as prophylaxis.

Antiviral creams or ointments can relieve the burning, itching, or tingling. Antiviral pills can help speed up the healing process. Both types of medication tend to contain the same active ingredients. They include:

  • acyclovir
  • famciclovir
  • valacyclovir

People can get herpes medication from a doctor or pharmacist. Over-the-counter options are also available online.

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If a person with a weakened immune system experiences a herpes skin rash, they should speak to their doctor.

For otherwise healthy people, a herpes skin rash is not usually anything to worry about. The sores can be painful and uncomfortable, but they typically go away by themselves. Medications to treat them are available from drugstores.

The virus can cause complications in some people. Anyone with a long-term health condition or weakened immune system who thinks that they may have herpes should speak to their doctor.

People with cancer, HIV, or AIDS and anyone who has recently had an organ transplant should seek urgent medical attention if they think that they may have herpes.

Anyone who suspects that something other than herpes — such as dermatitis, shingles, or scabies — is causing their rash can talk to their doctor about diagnosis.

Herpes is a common virus that can cause a rash of blistering sores on the skin. These tend to develop around the mouth or genitals but can appear almost anywhere on the body.

There is currently no cure for the virus, and carriers tend to experience symptom outbreaks at various times throughout their life.

The clusters of fluid filled blisters may be painful, but they are usually harmless. Antiviral treatments that can help ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of an outbreak are available in many drugstores.