Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by one of two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV):

  • type 1 (HSV-1): usually called oral herpes because it causes outbreaks of canker sores in the mouth that can be painful or produce a fluid called pus
  • type 2 (HSV-2): usually called genital herpes because it causes symptoms like painful sores and discharge from the genitals

Most people with herpes never have symptoms, but herpes is a common condition.

More than 3.7 billion people are thought to have HSV-1. About 400 million people between 15 and 49 years old are estimated to have HSV-2.

HSV-1 is spread by making contact with someone’s mouth who has the virus, such as by kissing.

HSV-2 is commonly spread by having unprotected oral, anal, or genital sex with someone who has the virus, even if they aren’t showing any symptoms. It’s also more common in people with vulvas.

Symptoms like discharge can make the virus even more contagious, so recognizing this symptom can help you get tested and start taking preventive measures right away.

Discharge can be a symptom for all people. How common it is and what that discharge looks like can vary.

Here’s a quick overview of what herpes-related discharge looks like in people with penises and people with vulvas.

Herpes vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge associated with herpes usually takes the form of a thick and clear, white, or cloudy liquid. It’s most common to have discharge when you’re having other symptoms like sores.

This liquid also tends to happen along with a strong smell that many people with herpes describe as “fishy.” This smell usually gets stronger or more pungent after having sex.

This discharge may have small amounts of blood in it. You may also notice some blood or discharge in your urine, even if you aren’t experiencing any herpes symptoms.

Herpes penile discharge

Penile discharge caused by herpes is a thick and clear, white, or cloudy liquid that appears at the opening of the penis head.

As is the case with vaginal discharge, penile discharge may also have a strong, smelly, “fishy” odor when it comes out, especially if it comes out along with semen when you ejaculate during sex.

An odor may not be as noticeable in penile discharge. This is because the vagina contains numerous colonies of healthy bacteria, called flora, that can mix with herpes discharge and change the natural smell of the vagina.

The penis doesn’t contain any of the healthy bacterial colonies that live in the vagina, so the smell will only come from the discharge itself.

Because the penis only has this one exit point through the urethra (the tube where urine and semen come out), discharge may come out by itself or be mixed in with urine.

You may also sometimes see blood in the discharge or when you urinate.

The most common symptom of a herpes outbreak is one or more clusters of small, round, painful sores that look like blisters or sometimes pimples filled with clear fluid.

These blisters can appear at the point of infection.

HSV-1 blisters usually form around or inside the mouth. HSV-2 blisters form around your genitals, your anus, or your mouth if you’ve gotten the virus from oral sex with someone who has the virus.

Other possible symptoms of a herpes outbreak include:

  • pain or aches in your head or around your body
  • swelling of your lymph nodes
  • fever of 101°F (38°C) or higher
  • pain or tingling in your legs

See a doctor as soon as possible if you notice genital discharge that may be associated with herpes or any other STI.

A diagnosis can help you understand how herpes affects you and start taking preventive measures to keep from spreading the infection to anyone with whom you have sex.

Getting treatment for herpes outbreaks can help reduce the severity of your symptoms and also might help limit how many outbreaks you have throughout your lifetime.

Here’s how to decrease the chances of getting or spreading herpes when you have sex:

  • Use a condom if you have penetrative genital or anal sex.
  • Use protection whenever you have oral sex, such as a dental dam or penile condom.
  • Limit or avoid sex if you or a partner are having an outbreak of symptoms.

Stop having sex and see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice discharge or other common herpes symptoms. A doctor can test the discharge to diagnose a herpes infection or test for other STIs.

Herpes can’t be cured, but it can be treated throughout your lifetime to limit how many outbreaks you have and to help you keep from spreading it to other people.

Protect yourself whenever you have oral, anal, or genital sex. Don’t share anything that’s touched (or you think may have touched) another person’s mouth, genitals, or anus.