Herpes is a disease caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV):
- HSV-1 is generally responsible for cold sores and fever blisters around the mouth and on the face. Often referred to as oral herpes, it’s usually contracted by kissing, sharing lip balm, and sharing eating utensils. It can also cause genital herpes.
- HSV-2, or genital herpes, causes blistering sores on the genitals. It’s usually contracted through sexual contact and can also infect the mouth.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 have an incubation period between transmission of the disease and appearance of symptoms.
Once you’ve contracted HSV, there will be an incubation period — the time it takes from contracting the virus until the first symptom appears.
The incubation period for HSV-1 and HSV-2 is the same: 2 to 12 days. For most people, the symptoms begin to show up in about 3 to 6 days.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of people who contract HSV have such mild symptoms that they either go unnoticed or are mistakenly identified as a different skin condition. Bearing that in mind, herpes could go undetected for years.
HSV typically alternates between a latent stage — or a dormancy period in which there are few symptoms — and an outbreak stage. In the latter, the primary symptoms are easily identified. The average is two to four outbreaks a year, but some people can go years without an outbreak.
Once a person has contracted HSV, they can transmit the virus even during dormant periods when there are no visible sores or other symptoms. The risk of transmitting the virus when it’s dormant is less. But it’s still a risk, even for people who are receiving treatment for HSV.
The chances are low that a person can transmit HSV to someone else within the first few days following their initial contact with the virus. But because of HSV dormancy, among other reasons, not many people can pinpoint the moment they contracted the virus.
Transmission is common from contact with a partner who might not know they have HSV and isn’t showing symptoms of infection.
There is no cure for herpes. Once you’ve contracted HSV, it stays in your system and you can transmit it to others, even during periods of dormancy.
You can talk to your doctor about medications that can lower your chances of transmitting the virus, but physical protection, although not perfect, is the most reliable option. This includes avoiding contact if you’re experiencing an outbreak and using condoms and dental dams during oral, anal, and vaginal sex.