Herpes Symptoms

Many people with herpes have no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they differ from person to person and depend on the timing of the herpes outbreak.

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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 if they happen at all, many people with the virus are not even aware that they have it until an outbreak occurs. Some people never have an outbreak. Outbreaks cause painful sores, and rarely can cause more significant health problems.

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 don’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.

You cannot contract herpes from hugging, sneezing, coughing, holding hands, or through toilet seats.

What do Herpes Symptoms Look Like?

Many people with herpes have no symptoms. People can go years without ever having an outbreak, which means people can be monogamous for decades before they learn they or their partner 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. Recurrent outbreaks are common but often are 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 tested it for HSV antibodies (produced by your immune system): both for HSV-1 and HSV-2. This test is sometimes referred to as the Herpes IgM test. It takes at least 3 weeks for most people to develop antibodies, though, so if you get tested early, the test may incorrectly show that you don’t have herpes. 

What Can I Expect From Herpes Treatment?

While there is no cure for herpes, the infection can be controlled. Your provider can prescribe antiviral drugs that will prevent or shorten outbreaks, greatly reducing your chance of developing herpes symptoms.

The Psychological Effects of Herpes

While HSV is a very common virus, there can be a social stigma associated with the STD, causing those who contract it a great deal of stress. This is especially true after first noticing herpes symptoms and having a diagnosis confirmed with testing.

You may choose to see a mental health professional to help alleviate the psychological stress of a herpes diagnosis, but know that for many who live with the disease, the stress will go away as you adapt to living an otherwise normal and healthy lifestyle.

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.

Herpes and Other STDs

Having open sores on your genitals can increase your chances of contracting HIV, hepatitis B, and other blood-borne diseases. Be aware of the increased risk of transmission and always use safe sex practices, especially during outbreaks.

Sources: ACOG.orgMayo ClinicCDCCDC-2

Medically reviewed by Amy Cyr, MD
Reviewed on October 11, 2019

Gender Differences in Symptoms

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

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