Coronavirus Update:What patients and families need to know
What is herpes?
It's a virus. There are two types of herpes: Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2).
Herpes can cause cold sores or fever blisters on your mouth, known as oral herpes, and/or can cause blisters or sores on your genitals, known as genital herpes.
Both men and women can get it.
How common is herpes?
Herpes is one of the most common STIs in the United States. One in six people between the ages of 14 and 49 in the United States have herpes. Almost 90% of people in the United States will have HSV-1 (oral herpes or "cold sores") at some point in their lives.
Many people have herpes and don't know it because they've never had symptoms. Most doctors don't screen for herpes unless you ask for it, so be sure to let your doctor know if you do have symptoms or have had sex or close contact with someone who has it.
How do I know if I have herpes?
Many people have NO SYMPTOMS. Remember, you can still give herpes to other people, even if you have no symptoms. If you do get symptoms, you might only get them once or you might get them several times during your life. It's different for everyone. When symptoms appear, it's called an "outbreak."
For oral herpes:
Symptoms are more likely to happen when you have a cold or a fever, or after you've been out in the sun.
Symptoms can include:
- Sores in your mouth, around your teeth and gums.
- Blisters on or around your lips:
- These are called cold sores or fever blisters.
The symptoms usually go away within 7-10 days.
For genital herpes:
If you get symptoms:
- The first outbreak is usually the worst and most painful.
- They usually appear within 2-20 days after you are infected.
- They usually go away within 2-3 weeks.
Symptoms can include:
- Tingling in the genital area.
- Small, painful red bumps that turn into blisters in about 24-72 hours.
- These can appear on the labia, clitoris, vagina, vulva (area outside and around your vagina), cervix, penis, scrotum, anus, thighs or butt.
- Burning in the genital area.
- Pain when you pee and urine passes over the sore or blisters.
- For women, your vulva (the area outside and around the vagina) can get so swollen from the sores that you aren't able to pee.
- Swelling and tenderness in the lymph glands around your groin, neck, or under your arms:
- These glands can stay swollen for up to six weeks.
- Aching muscles
- Nausea — feeling sick to your stomach and like you might throw up
- Feeling "run down" and/or achy
How do you get herpes?
- You get herpes from mouth-to-mouth, mouth-to-genital or genital-to-genital contact.
- You can get herpes by touching, kissing or having any type of sex — that includes vaginal, anal and oral.
- You can get herpes when you come in contact with herpes sores or blisters or from the body fluids from the vagina, penis, anus or mouth of someone who is infected.
- Herpes is most easily spread when the infected person has open sores or blisters, but it can also be spread before the sores/blisters form or even when the infected person has no symptoms.
- Moist areas of your body are easily infected, including:
- Vulva (The area outside and around your vagina)
- Herpes can be passed between people, but you can also pass it from one part of your body to another part of your body.
- Unprotected or under-protected sex. This means having sex without using condoms or using a condom, but the condom breaks, slips off, or you don't use it the entire time. However, because a condom doesn't cover all the areas where the herpes virus can live on a person's body – including the mouth – condoms won't completely protect you from getting herpes.
- You can get genital herpes, known as HSV-2, two different ways:
- HSV-1, also called oral herpes, can pass from a person's mouth to another person's genitals during oral sex and cause genital herpes.
- HSV-2 can pass between two people during sex or whenever your genitals come in contact.
How can I keep from getting herpes?
Don't kiss or have oral sex with someone who has cold sores or fever blisters on their mouth. If you see any sores or blisters, don't touch them with your hands, lips, or genitals. Only have sex with someone who has been tested for herpes and does not have it.
If you have sex, use a condom every time you have any type of sex and get tested regularly. Remember, condoms are not 100% effective in preventing herpes, since the virus can live on body parts not covered by a condom AND the virus can be passed just by touching body parts that are affected by the virus.
How can I keep from spreading herpes?
- If you think you might have herpes, don't have sex or close contact with anyone (including kissing or touching of body parts) until you get tested and begin treatment.
- Get tested. Remember, you may not have symptoms. You can still spread herpes even if you don't have symptoms.
- Use a condom EVERY TIME you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Since the herpes virus can live on body parts not covered by a condom, condoms are not 100 percent effective in preventing herpes, BUT they do lower the chance of spreading it.
- DO NOT have sex during an outbreak or until all the sores have healed, fallen off, and the skin is normal again.
- If you have oral herpes, don't let anyone kiss or touch your mouth and don't have oral sex when you have sores or blisters.
- Before an outbreak, some people feel a tingling, burning, or itching where the sores were before. If you feel this, stop having sex until the outbreak is over. This feeling can happen a few hours or days before an outbreak starts.
- If you test positive for herpes, talk to a doctor about:
- Taking medication to control your symptoms and lower the chance of passing it to your partner(s).
- Advice on how to keep from spreading it to your partner(s).
Can herpes be treated? How do I get rid of it?
You cannot get rid of herpes. Once you are infected with the herpes virus, you will have it for the rest of your life.
Even though you can't get rid of herpes, there are medications to treat it. These medicines can do the following:
- Help your sores and blisters go away faster
- Make symptoms less painful
- Lower the chance that you will infect your partner
- Make outbreaks happen less often
For HSV-1 (oral herpes), you can use sun block on and around your lips and wear a hat to lower the chance of getting cold sores after being out in the sun.
You can also lower your pain and/or discomfort during genital herpes outbreaks by doing the following:
- Keep the sores dry and clean. You can also use an ointment like Desitin or A+D on the sores to help with irritation.
- Don't touch the sores. If you do touch them, wash your hands with soap and water afterward.
- Wear lose, cotton underwear and clothes to keep your clothes from rubbing against the sores.
- Take warm or cool baths (depending on which helps you the most).
- Hold cool compresses or ice packs to the sores for a few minutes several times a day.
- Drink water.
- Take acetaminophen (like Tylenol or Excedrin) or ibuprofen (like Advil or Motrin) to help with any pain or fever you are having.
- For women, if peeing is painful, you can sit backwards on the toilet so the urine won't run over your sores or pee in a bath or shower.
- Don't touch or rub your eyes and don't wet your contact lenses with saliva. Wash your hands after you touch a contact lens.
What causes a herpes outbreak? Can I prevent them?
About half of all people infected with herpes don't have any outbreaks after the first time they get sores and blisters. Other people with herpes might only get a few outbreaks during their lives, while others might get a lot of outbreaks.
It's not clear what causes an outbreak, but some ideas include:
- Other infections in your body or a lowered immune system
- Physical or emotional stress
- Being out in the sun
- Having sex
- For women, your period
- Using alcohol
- Having surgery
- Having a fever
It is possible to have many outbreaks in a row and then go months or years without getting one. If you have an illness that lowers your immune system, like leukemia or HIV, you are more likely to get outbreaks and for your outbreaks to be more painful and last longer.
You can't prevent outbreaks from happening, but taking medicine prescribed by a doctor can help you to have them less often. If you aren't on a herpes medication and you get outbreaks a lot or they are really bad, talk to a doctor about what kind of medicine you should take. Eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and lowering your stress can help decrease the amount of outbreaks you have.
What can happen if I don't get treatment for herpes?
Without treatment, you might get more outbreaks and/or have outbreaks that last longer and are more painful. Treatment may not prevent passing herpes to your partner(s), but it lowers the chance of this happening. Without treatment, you are more likely to infect your partner(s) with herpes.
You can be more likely to get HIV. HIV can easily infect your body through the open herpes sores, and treatment helps you to get these sores less often and to go away faster.
If you become pregnant, you could pass the herpes virus onto your baby during or after birth, which can make the baby really sick.
Rarely, the herpes virus can spread to your spinal cord and/or brain.
How do I get tested for herpes?
A doctor will look at any sores or blisters you might have and take some of your blood to test for the virus. If you don't have any symptoms, the doctor will just take some of your blood.
You can get tested at places like family planning centers, private doctors' offices, STI clinics, hospital clinics, or health departments. Find a place to get tested from our list of testing locations.
How often should I get tested for herpes?
If you think you have herpes, or think you have been exposed to herpes, see a doctor to get tested. If you change sex partners, both you and your new partner should get tested before you start having sex.