Herpes Symptoms

Herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease for which there is no cure. And even when blisters or sores aren't apparent, you could still be infected and not even know it.

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What is Herpes?

Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by one of two viruses: herpes simplex virus type-1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV-2). Genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2. Oral herpes, which causes cold sores and fever blisters on or around the mouth, is usually caused by HSV-1. Both viruses, though, can cause both oral and genital herpes.

Herpes is very common in the United States and it affects women more than men. Because herpes symptoms can be mild or even non-existent, many people who live with the virus are not even aware that they have it until an outbreak occurs. Some who have the virus may be prone to frequent outbreaks while others may never experience an outbreak at all. While an outbreak will cause painful and unsightly sores, they rarely are responsible for more significant health problems.

How do I know if I have herpes?

Experiencing an outbreak for the first time, while unpleasant, is certainly the most definitive way to tell on your own whether or not you’ve contracted herpes. You may experience itching and/or pain while urinating or general discomfort in the genital region. Your first outbreak may last a couple weeks, but as your body learns how to react to the virus, you’ll notice subsequent outbreaks will become shorter and less intense.

Of course, this is all assuming that you’ll experience an outbreak. Remember, many who carry the virus experience no symptoms whatsoever. Or it may be quite some time after contracting the virus before the first sign of symptoms appear. For these reasons, the only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted the herpes virus is to take a reputable STD test.

How is herpes contracted?

Herpes is contracted by way of skin to skin contact with infected areas. This can include, but is not limited to, kissing and sexual activity. Those experiencing outbreaks should be extremely cautious to not kiss or engage in sexual contact with anyone until the outbreak has subsided. Contrary to popular belief, however, herpes cannot live outside the body for more than a few seconds. So contracting it from a toilet seat, fork, or shared drink is extremely unlikely.

Can you get herpes from kissing?

Yes, unlike other common STDs, the herpes virus can be passed by through kissing. Even innocent pecks are enough to pass the virus from one person to another. In fact, many who live with the virus contracted it as children from well-intentioned relatives. If you’re experiencing an outbreak, you’ll want to hold off on kissing anyone until the outbreak is over.

Can anyone contract herpes?

Yes, there is no known natural immunity to the herpes virus. Anyone can be vulnerable when it comes to contracting it.

How is herpes prevented?

Herpes viruses can be spread through sexual contact: vaginal, oral, or anal. It is easiest to spread the virus when someone has sores, but even skin without sores can carry the virus and spread it to another person. You do not need to have sex to contract herpes.

You can avoid infection through a variety of safer sex practices. Using latex condoms and dental dams, reducing your number of partners, being in a mutually monogamous relationship, and even abstinence are all ways of decreasing your risk of exposure. Condoms and dental dams do not cover all the skin where herpes may be, though, so they reduce the chance of contracting herpes but won’t eliminate it.
Herpes is more easily spread when someone has an outbreak, so avoiding sexual activity during this time will reduce the chance of exposure. Some people with herpes take antiviral medication to reduce the chances of passing the virus on to their partners.

While extremely contagious and dangerous inside the body, the virus cannot live for more than a few seconds outside of the body. So while actions such as sharing drinks, silverware, or cigarettes may not be the most sanitary of practices, it is extremely unlikely to pass or contract the herpes virus in these ways. Likewise, you cannot contract herpes from hugging, sneezing, coughing, holding hands, or through toilet seats.

Do condoms prevent herpes?

Using condoms properly will reduce the risk of contracting herpes during sexual activity, but it will not eliminate the risk entirely. Since sores can appear throughout the genital region, and not just on the penis or vulva itself, you still run the risk of coming in contact with open sores during sexual activity. The same can be said regarding dental dams. They may lower the risk marginally, but the only way to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus entirely is to remain abstinent when you or your partner are experiencing an outbreak.

What do herpes symptoms look like?

Most of the time, a person with either strain of the herpes virus will show no symptoms whatsoever. Frequency of visible symptoms and outbreaks differ from person to person and some may go years, decades, or an entire lifetime with no outbreaks whatsoever. Because of this, it is very possible for a monogamous couple to go decades before learning that one or both have the virus.

When people do notice herpes symptoms, it is often within 10 days of being infected. During this first outbreak, there may be flu-like symptoms: Fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and nausea. Blister-like sores develop around the genitals or mouth, including in the vagina or on the cervix, penis, anus, buttocks, or the inside of the thighs. These blisters can break and turn into painful sores. The sores heal quickly and subside within a few days. Generally, the first outbreak will be the worst you’ll ever experience. As your body learns to react, however, recurrent outbreaks, while common, will be less severe and shorter than the first one.

What can I expect when I get tested for herpes?

To test for herpes, a blood sample is drawn and tested for HSV antibodies (produced by your immune system) for both HSV-1 and HSV-2. This test is sometimes referred to as the Herpes IgM test. It takes at least three weeks after infection for most people to develop antibodies, so testing too early may produce inaccurate results. You’ll want to test later just to be sure.

With Priority STD Testing, simply select the herpes test you need (or a panel option that includes a herpes test) from our online catalog, find the closest testing facility, and stop by at your convenience. Tests take only a few minutes and most people are in and out in under a half hour. In most cases, you’ll have your results in as little as 24-72 hours.

Is herpes curable?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes. Once you’ve contracted the virus, you carry it for life. However, medicines are available that can help you manage living with the virus; medicines that minimize the severity and duration of outbreaks. When outbreaks do occur, however, you’ll want to be extremely cautious about kissing and engaging in sexual activity so as not to pass the virus to someone else.

Relationships with Herpes

Many people who discover they have herpes fear that this will negatively impact their sex lives. While some people may react negatively to your diagnosis, know that there are millions of people with herpes.

As someone with HSV, you may be concerned with passing the virus to your partner. This chance can be reduced through standard safe sex practices, such as using latex condoms and dental dams, along with taking a daily antiviral drug that your provider can prescribe. This antiviral drug does not eliminate the chance of giving the virus to your partner, but it reduces the chances. You should also avoid sex during an outbreak, as the virus is easiest to spread when symptoms are present.

If you developed herpes symptoms in a monogamous relationship, it does not necessarily mean that anyone has cheated. Because HSV can lie hidden in your system for years without an outbreak, it is difficult to know when the virus was contracted without herpes testing.

How will herpes affect my pregnancy?

Herpes can be spread from a mother to her baby during childbirth. This is uncommon unless the woman was very recently infected with herpes. It is therefore important for pregnant women to avoid any exposure to herpes, especially late in pregnancy.

For women with genital herpes and who do not have any symptoms when they go into labor, vaginal delivery is usually safe. During an outbreak, however, a c-section may be recommended to prevent passing the virus on to the baby. Some women may take antiviral medication during pregnancy to reduce the chance of an outbreak and the need for a c-section.

Infants with herpes are usually healthy but can develop herpes scores, infection of the neurological system, or a herpes blood infection which is life-threatening.

Your infant cannot catch herpes by breastfeeding.

Can I take an at-home herpes test?

While there are at-home testing options for herpes, be warned that administering a test yourself can certainly affect the accuracy of your results. Be wary of at-home options that are not approved by the FDA. Though many brands will claim to be just as accurate as any other option, the truth is you simply don’t know what you’re getting.

In addition, in using a self-administered testing kit, directions can sometimes be unclear which can lessen your chances of an accurate reading. The best case when it comes to accurate herpes testing is to find a reputable STD testing service and let the experts handle the process start to finish.

What if I have additional questions?

If you have questions about the herpes testing process, or are wondering if you should get tested, contact one of our Priority STD Testing care counselors. They’ll be able assist you in finding the right tests, understanding your results, and planning for future steps to get you back on the path to wellness.

Medically reviewed by Amy Cyr MD
Reviewed on 12/21/2021

Gender Differences in Symptoms

Herpes Symptoms in Women
  • No noticeable symptoms
Herpes Symptoms in Men
  • No noticeable symptoms

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