What Are the Symptoms and Signs of Herpes?

Reviewed on 9/11/2020
Herpes is a type of infection caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV)
Herpes is a type of infection caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV)

Herpes is a type of infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It causes sores or blisters to form in or around the mouth or genitals.

There are two types of HSV:

  • HSV-1 causes oral herpes, which usually affects the mouth and surrounding skin.
  • HSV-2 causes genital herpes, which is usually sexually transmitted. Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) that any sexually active person can get. Most people with the virus don’t have symptoms. Even without signs of the disease, herpes can still spread to sex partners.

Oral herpes caused by HSV-1 can spread from the mouth to the genitals through oral sex. Hence, some cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-1.

Most of the time, there are no symptoms, and lots of people don’t know they have herpes. Oral herpes in fact is less painful than genital herpes and doesn’t make a person feel as sick. Herpes symptoms may be more painful and last longer in people with illnesses that damage your immune system such as blood cancer and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Symptoms and signs of oral herpes include:

  • Cold sores or fever blisters: These are sores on the lips or around the mouth. These sores last a few weeks and then go away on their own. They can again pop up in weeks, months, or years. They are usually harmless in kids and adults but may be dangerous for newborn babies. Sometimes, these sores may also be found inside the mouth in the initial few days of the symptoms.

Symptoms and signs of genital herpes include:  

What is a genital herpes outbreak?

The first outbreak or “first episode” or “initial herpes” is the condition when blisters and other genital herpes symptoms show up. It usually starts about 2-20 days after a person gets infected with herpes. Sometimes, it may take a year for the outbreak to happen. The first herpes outbreak lasts about two to four weeks. Although the blisters go away, the virus stays in the body and can cause sores again. It’s common to get repeat outbreaks, especially during the first year of herpes. Patients might notice some warning signs a few hours or days before outbreaks flare-up. The first symptoms of herpes outbreak are worst and painful. Repeat outbreaks are usually shorter and less painful, and eventually, these outbreaks become negligible.

Can herpes be cured?

There is no cure for herpes. However, there are medicines that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. One of these anti-herpes medicines such as Valacyclovir can be taken daily, which can reduce the spread of infection. Suppressive therapy can provide coverage for individuals who have frequent outbreaks. During therapy, an individual with frequent outbreaks takes a small dose of anti-herpes medication every day. It has been proven that suppressive therapy can reduce the number of outbreaks by over 90%. Patients have taken suppressive therapy for long periods of time, but in most cases, patients can be weaned from it.

Herpes symptoms may be relieved by the below methods:

  • Taking a warm bath or bathing in lightly salted water or soaking in a warm sitz bath
  • Keeping the genital area dry (moisture makes the sores last longer)
  • Wearing soft, loose clothes
  • Putting an ice pack on the sores
  • Applying petroleum jelly to the affected areas
  • Taking a pain reliever such as aspirin, Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen), or Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Applying a cream or lotion to the urethra before urinating, such as one that contains lidocaine

How can herpes be prevented?

Preventive methods of herpes include:

  • Avoiding sex while symptoms are present
  • Washing the hands thoroughly, especially after touching the affected area, during an outbreak
  • Using protection such as condoms when having sex
  • Avoiding kissing and oral sex when there is a cold sore around the mouth
  • Sunburns, injuries to the lips, or other infections can cause oral herpes flare-ups, so avoiding getting sunburned may prevent oral herpes.

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References
Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet: (https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm)

Oral & Genital Herpes: (https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex/herpes)

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