Young women's version of this guide

Young man with cold sore

Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. It’s an infection caused by two different but similar viruses, called Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2).

  • HSV-1 is usually transmitted by touching and kissing but it can also be transmitted by sexual contact. Infections with HSV-1 may cause cold sores, and/or fever blisters on the lips, sores around the teeth and gums or no symptoms. HSV-1 is also spread by oral sexual contact and can cause genital herpes.
  • HSV-2 is almost always spread by sexual contact and can cause genital herpes with painful lesions around the vulva, cervix, anus, and penis.

How common is herpes?

Almost 90 percent of Americans will have oral herpes (“cold sores”) caused by Herpes Simplex Virus type 1 (HSV-1) at some time in their life. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States more than 1 out of every 6 people 14 to 49 years old have genital herpes caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2. However, many people don’t know they are infected because they have never had or noticed the symptoms. Genital herpes is more common among women than men.

How is herpes spread?

Herpes is spread through contact with infected skin or mucosa (such as the surface of the lips, vagina, or rectum); secretions from the vagina, penis, or anus; or oral fluid of someone who is infected with the virus. This includes touching, kissing, and sexual contact (vaginal, anal, penile, and oral). Moist areas of the mouth, throat, anus, vulva, vagina, and eyes are very easily infected.

Herpes can be passed from one partner to another or from one part of your own body to another part. If one partner has oral cold sores, they can pass on the virus during oral sex and cause genital herpes.

Herpes is most easily spread when there are open sores, but it can also be spread before the blisters actually form or even from people with no symptoms. It’s very unlikely that herpes is spread by toilet seats, swimming pools, bathtubs, whirlpools, or moist towels.

Pregnant individuals can pass the virus to their baby during or after childbirth. Pregnant individuals should always let their health care provider (HCP) know if they have had herpes or been exposed to herpes.  Also anyone with oral herpes should avoid contact with newborn babies.

What are the symptoms of oral herpes?

The first oral contact with herpes often causes no symptoms, but it may cause sores in the mouth around the teeth and gums (“gingivostomatitis”). Typically the infection shows up later as small blisters on the lips (“cold sores” or “fever blisters”), a flare-up of an earlier infection. The flare-ups are more common during colds, fevers, and sun exposure.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Genital infection with herpes may not cause any symptoms and the person may not know they have the virus until they pass it on to another person or get symptoms when the virus is “reactivated.” If symptoms are present, they often include painful bumps or sores (also called vesicles). These bumps or sores can be mistaken for other rashes (such as a pimple or ingrown hair). The first outbreak is usually the worst and most painful and occurs within 2-20 days after contact with the virus. The sores usually will go away within 2-3 weeks.

The first time a person becomes infected with the virus is called “primary herpes.”

Symptoms may include:

  • Tingling in the genital area at first
  • Small, painful red bumps that turn into small blisters in about 24-72 hours. They can appear on the penis, scrotum, labia, clitoris, vagina, vulva, cervix, anus, thighs, or buttocks.

Other symptoms of primary herpes infection can include:

  • Burning, painful feeling if urine passes over the sores; unable to urinate (pee) if the vulva is swollen (because of the many sores)
  • Swollen, tender lymph glands in the groin, neck, and under the arms (can remain swollen for up to 6 weeks)
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • “Run-down” feeling
  • Achy, flu-like feeling

Symptoms usually go away on their own within 2-3 weeks. They can go away even faster if you are treated with medication. The sores usually scab over and heal without scars. But after going away, the virus stays in the body, even with treatment. The infection can flare up and cause sores again days, weeks, months, or even years later (“outbreaks”).

How is herpes diagnosed?

Your HCP can diagnose herpes by looking at the sores during a physical exam and by testing fluid taken from the sores to see if you have HSV-1 or HSV-2. There are also specific blood tests, which can be helpful in some patients to figure out which virus type caused the symptoms or to figure out if you have been infected by herpes. Testing for herpes may or may not be included when your health care provider tests for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend routine screening.

If you think you have symptoms of herpes or have a partner with genital herpes, see your HCP right away and ask if you need testing and treatment. It’s important to call your HCP right away, as you would want to start treatment within 72 hours of the symptoms starting.

Is there treatment for herpes?

Yes. Your HCP can prescribe medications that quicken healing, make symptoms less painful, and lower the risk of getting outbreaks. These medications don’t kill the virus and don’t guarantee you won’t get outbreaks in the future. Even when you don’t have any symptoms, the virus is in the body and can flare up. However, the flare ups and outbreaks of sores usually become fewer and less severe as time goes on. Outbreaks can be prevented or treated early with anti-viral medication to lessen symptoms.

Does treatment cure herpes?

No. Although herpes cannot be cured, it can be treated! For oral herpes, using a sun block on and around the borders of the lips and a hat can lessen the chance of cold sores from sun exposure. Oral medications, prescribed by your HCP, can be used to treat herpes infections, help prevent genital herpes recurrences, and decrease the chance of passing the infection to partners.

Is there anything I can do to relieve my symptoms for genital herpes?

  • Keep sores clean and dry
  • Don’t touch the sores. If you do, wash your hands well with soap and water
  • Wear loose, cotton underwear and clothes to keep your clothes from rubbing against the sores
  • Take warm or cool baths
  • Try holding cool compresses or ice packs to the sores for a few minutes several times a day
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with pain and fever
  • For those with a vulva: If urination (peeing) is painful, you can urinate sitting backwards on the toilet so the urine doesn’t touch the lesions or urinate (pee) in a warm bath or shower. You can also use both hands to separate the lips of your vulva, so that urine doesn’t touch the sores. It’s important to wash your hands right after touching your vulva so the virus isn’t spread to your fingers or face.
  • Don’t touch or rub your eyes; don’t wet contact lenses with saliva
  • Wash your hands before touching a contact lens

You may have some early warning signs that an outbreak is coming. These signs include: tingling, burning, and itching where you had sores before. These signs could start a few hours or days before the outbreak.

How often do outbreaks occur?

Half of the people who have herpes don’t have any more outbreaks after the first occurrence of symptoms. This is especially true if the infecting herpes was HSV-1. Some people only get a few outbreaks, while others get many. People can have many outbreaks in a row and then go months or years without one. People with illnesses that weaken the immune system such as leukemia and HIV are more likely to get more outbreaks and have symptoms that are more painful and last longer.

What causes an outbreak?

It is not clear what causes outbreaks. Some ideas are: other infections, physical or emotional stress, fever, surgery, , sexual intercourse, skin irritation (sunburn or sun exposure), trauma, alcohol, or problems with your immune system.

Is there anything I can do to prevent outbreaks?

Make sure that are you are eating a healthy diet, getting enough rest, exercising, and finding ways to relieve stress. If you have frequent or severe outbreaks, talk to your health care provider about taking a medication to help prevent outbreaks or to treat them early.

How can I prevent spreading herpes?

  • If you are having a herpes outbreak, you should NOT have any sexual contact until all sores have healed, the scabs have fallen off, and the skin is normal again.
  • Using condoms lessens the chance of getting herpes but does not completely protect against spreading the disease because the condom does not cover all areas of the body where there may be herpes infection. Touching sores can also spread herpes to other parts of the body or to your partner.
  • If your skin has become normal again and you have no symptoms of herpes, you can have sexual contact again but herpes can still be spread when there are no symptoms. You should always use condoms whenever you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
  • If you get any of the typical warning signs that an outbreak may occur-tingling, burning, and itching where sores were before-you should stop having sexual contact until the outbreak is over. These signs can start a few hours or a day before the sores show up.
  • Talk to your health care provider about whether you should take medication to lessen your chance of transmitting herpes to your partner. It is helpful for your partner(s) to get a blood test for herpes type specific antibodies so they know if they have already had the infection. If they have a positive test for the herpes type you have had, then you don’t need to take medication to prevent transmission. Pregnant women should particularly avoid getting a herpes infection and let their health care provider know if they have ever had symptoms of genital herpes.

Is there a connection between herpes and HIV infection?

People with herpes or other sexually transmitted infections that cause genital sores are more likely to get HIV. The sores provide a place for the HIV virus to enter and start spreading. If a person with HIV also gets genital herpes, the herpes infection is likely to be more severe.

While it is normal to have many different reactions after learning you have herpes, try to remember it can be managed. Many teens and young adults find it helpful to talk with a counselor or others who have herpes. Support groups can provide a safe environment to connect with others and a place where you can learn about herpes and how to manage outbreaks, and sexual relationships.

If you’re concerned about herpes, here’s a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: How do I know if I have a pimple or herpes?