Herpes Symptoms

Learning that you have herpes symptoms can be a terrifying experience due to the significant stigma that surrounds the virus. People begin to wonder what herpes will mean for their life, especially when it comes to romance. Before you begin to panic, get informed about the myths and facts of herpes: how it will (and won’t) affect your life.

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What is Herpes?

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

Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by one of two viruses: herpes simplex virus type-1(HSV1) and herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV2). HSV1 is typically known as oral herpes, the virus that can cause cold sores and fever blisters on or around the mouth. When people imagine genital herpes, they are likely thinking of HSV2. While it is true that each virus tends to stay in their respective regions, herpes symptoms are not always exclusive. Both viruses can be the cause for oral or genital herpes.

While herpes carries with it a social stigma, herpes is actually very common in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in six people (ages 14 through 49) in the U.S. has genital herpes, with oral herpes being even more prevalent. Because herpes symptoms can be mild or nonexistent, many with the virus are not even aware that they have it until an outbreak occurs, which can be seldom or never. You may know several people with herpes, either HSV1 or HSV2, and they may not even be aware.

How is Herpes Prevented?

HSV1 is the most common to contract, as it can be transmitted through as little as a kiss. In fact, many people first receive HSV1 as children, getting it from a parent or family member. The virus is most transmittable when someone has an outbreak, with open and wet sores, yet most times the virus is passed while the carrier is displaying no visible herpes symptoms.

HSV2 is similarly transmitted, with the only difference being that it is most commonly passed through sexual contact: vaginal, oral, or anal. You do not need to have sex to contract herpes, but having sex does leave you susceptible to the virus in additional ways.

Because the virus is quick to die outside the body, you cannot contract herpes from hugging, sneezing, coughing, holding hands, or through toilet seats.

What do Herpes Symptoms Look Like?

Because outbreaks come and go, many people with HSV will display no outward herpes 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. Because HSV is sneaky, the best way to look for herpes is through regular testing.

When people do notice herpes symptoms, the most common thing they develop are sores in the genitals or mouth. These painful or itchy blisters can develop in the vagina, cervix, penis, anus, butt, the inside of your thighs. The blisters can then break and turn into sores.

If you have any of the herpes symptoms below, you should get tested as soon as possible. While you may have herpes, there are other infections that can display similar symptoms, such as syphilis. The only true way to know that you have HSV is to get tested by a physician.

What Can I Expect When I Get Tested for Herpes?

Getting tested can be stressful for many people, but try to remember that it is a normal aspect of living a healthy and responsible lifestyle. There is no shame in getting tested; in fact, it’s a very positive step you can take – for yourself and for those in your life – and should be a regular part of your life.

To test for herpes, doctors will collect a blood sample and test it for HSV antibodies: both HSV1 and HSV2. This test is sometimes referred to as the Herpes IgM test. While testing is very accurate, and can be performed as early as 10 days after exposure, getting tested too early can sometimes result in a false positive. If you get tested early, you should consider getting tested again at a later date as well, because antibodies for herpes may not present themselves for anywhere between two weeks and six months.

What Can I Expect From Herpes Treatment?

While there is no cure for HSV, you can still live a completely normal lifestyle. Your doctor can prescribe you antiviral drugs that will prevent or shorten outbreaks, greatly reducing your chance of developing herpes symptoms.

The Psychological Effects of Herpes

While herpes 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 by your doctor.

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 romantic life. While some people may react negatively to your diagnosis, know that there are millions of people with herpes and many of them have as active love lives as anyone else.

As someone with HSV, you may be concerned with passing the virus to your partner. This can sometimes be prevented through standard safe sex practices, such as using condoms and dental dams, along with a daily antiviral drug that your doctor can prescribe. This antiviral drug does not protect against transmission 100% but it can help reduce the chances. To prevent an outbreak, you may also want to avoid sex during an outbreak, as the virus is most transmittable when herpes symptoms are present.

When you discover that you have herpes, you will want to discuss this with your partner(s), both current and future. It can be a difficult and embarrassing discussion, but know that your partner is better off informed.

Approach your partner with the information that you wish you had known, helping them to understand herpes, its symptoms, and the types of treatment that are available. Your partner may be burdened with the same frightening myths that you once held true, so they may be relieved to know the facts. If they are turned off when you inform them that you have HSV, give them time. While not everyone feels comfortable dating someone with herpes, many partners just need time to get over the initial stigma that many of us have been raised with.

If there is a chance that your partner may already have herpes, encourage them to get tested. Even if they are not currently displaying herpes symptoms, getting tested can reduce the anxiety that comes from not knowing. The better informed you are, the better you are likely to feel.

Remember: If you have 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?

It can be concerning when you develop herpes symptoms during your pregnancy, or if you want to become pregnant knowing that you have genital herpes. The risk involved all depends on when you may have contracted the virus.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus while pregnant, the risks with pregnancy can be considerable. Let your doctor know that you have genital herpes, so any necessary precautions can be made to avoid miscarriage or early birth.

If you have had genital herpes for some time and are experiencing an outbreak, the chances of your passing it on to your baby are small, but a doctor may recommend you deliver via C-section for the safety of your child. Otherwise, the baby may be infected as it passes through the birth canal, which could lead to serious eye infections or even brain damage.

Of course, these risks are associated with genital herpes rather than oral herpes. While oral herpes is not dangerous during pregnancy or birth, you may want to avoid kissing your child while you have any open sores on your mouth.

Herpes and Other STDs

While there is no direct connection between herpes symptoms and developing other STDs, having open sores on your genitals can increase your chances of contracting HIV, hepatitis B, as well as any other blood-borne diseases. Be aware of your increased risk of transmission and always use safe sex practices, especially during outbreaks.

Gender Differences in Symptoms

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

Did you know there are multiple kinds of STD tests?

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