Herpes is a viral skin infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Symptoms may not appear immediately after a person contracts the virus. When herpes symptoms do appear, they can affect the genital or oral area.
There are two types of HSV: type 1, which mainly causes oral herpes, and type 2, which tends to cause genital herpes. However, both types can occur in both areas.
In this article, learn about the first signs to look out for. We also provide a general timeline of symptoms and provide information on when to see a doctor.
Some people do not experience any symptoms after contracting herpes. If symptoms do appear, the first to show are usually herpes sores.
These sores can appear as blisters around the mouth, rectum, or genitals. They can break open and be painful, leaving sores that can take a few weeks to heal.
Other symptoms can include:
- a burning sensation when urinating, if the urine passes over a herpes sore
- difficulty urinating due to sores blocking the urethra
- itching and pain around the genitals
Some people refer to the first visible signs of herpes as an “outbreak.” During the first outbreak of herpes, people may also have flu-like symptoms, including:
If a person already has a condition that affects their immune system, they may experience longer lasting and more painful symptoms.
Examples of conditions that can affect the immune system include:
The first outbreak of herpes can last for around 2–4 weeks. After this time, the sores will gradually heal without leaving any scars. People usually find that the first outbreak of herpes is the longest and most painful.
People may start to notice signs of an outbreak before it happens. Doctors refer to these symptoms as “prodromal” symptoms. A person who experiences prodromal symptoms can begin taking treatments and other precautions in preparation for the outbreak.
Some typical prodromal symptoms of herpes include an itching, burning, or tingling sensation around the genitals, as well as shooting pains in the hips, buttocks, or legs.
Over time, people may experience fewer outbreaks with milder symptoms. Some people may eventually stop experiencing herpes outbreaks altogether.
The herpes virus can lie dormant in the body for years before people experience any symptoms.
After people have the first outbreak of herpes, the virus then lies dormant in the nervous system. Any further outbreaks are due to the virus reactivating, which causes symptoms to appear.
Symptoms are usually less severe during repeat outbreaks. Sores also clear up more quickly, often within 3–7 days. This is due to the antibodies the body produces to fight the first outbreak of herpes. The body can then use these antibodies to respond more quickly to future outbreaks.
There is currently no cure for herpes. Even if a person stops experiencing symptoms, the virus will remain inside their body.
It is also important to point out that herpes is transmissible even when no sores or other symptoms are present. For this reason, early prevention is advisable.
The herpes virus may be spread by direct skin-to-skin contact with the affected area. As a result, people can contract herpes from engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a person who has the herpes virus.
Condoms and dental dams do not offer complete protection against the herpes virus, as herpes can live on areas around the genitals. However, these methods do reduce the likelihood of contracting the infection or passing it on.
A person who has herpes can also take other steps to reduce the chance of passing it on to a sexual partner. Such steps include telling their sexual partner that they have herpes before having sex.
Both people can then take additional steps to reduce the likelihood of transmission. These steps may include:
- not having sex during an outbreak of herpes, as the virus can transfer more easily through sores
- waiting until all sores are completely healed before having sex again
- looking out for prodromal symptoms of an outbreak, and not having sex during this time
- always using condoms or dental dams during sex, even when no herpes symptoms are present
- washing hands with soap and water after touching a herpes sore, to prevent the virus spreading to other areas
- not kissing people when mouth sores are present — particularly people with weaker immune systems
Taking daily antiviral medication can also reduce the likelihood of passing on the infection. A person can talk to their doctor about this treatment option.
People should see their doctor if they think they might have herpes, or if they have any symptoms of herpes. Getting tested for herpes is also important to rule out other sexually transmitted infections.
People can visit their doctor or a sexual health clinic for a test. If people have any sores or blisters present, a healthcare provider will use a swab to take a sample from the sores. The sample will indicate whether or not the sores are due to a herpes infection.
Some people may be concerned that they have the herpes virus but no symptoms. In such cases, a doctor might be able to order a blood test to check for the virus in a person’s blood. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend routine testing.
People may notice the first symptoms of herpes around 2–20 days after contracting the infection. In some cases, however, people may have the herpes virus for many years before noticing any symptoms.
The main symptoms of herpes are sores around the mouth or genitals and flu-like symptoms including headache and fatigue.
After the initial outbreak of herpes, some people may have repeated outbreaks. These are likely to be shorter and less painful than the first.
People who have herpes should take the necessary precautions to avoid passing it on to others. This includes using condoms or dental dams during sex and not having sex during an active outbreak.
If people notice any symptoms of herpes, they should see their doctor. The doctor will carry out the necessary tests to check whether a person has herpes or another condition.