There are two types of herpes: oral and genital. They’re both common, and they’re both caused by viruses.
Symptoms can become apparent right away, or the virus can remain inactive for many years. Your first outbreak can range from mild to severe.
Herpes is contagious. If you have sores around your mouth or genitals, see a healthcare provider immediately to find out if it’s herpes.
The American Sexual Health Association estimates that roughly half of all adults in the United States have oral herpes.
Oral herpes is usually caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Not everyone has symptoms, but oral herpes can cause cold sores or blisters around the mouth.
Oral herpes spreads when you come into contact with the virus that can be present in herpes lesions or saliva, or on the surfaces of the mouth. Transmission can happen during close contact, such as kissing or sharing personal items, such as lipstick or eating utensils.
Oral herpes is likely to occur early in life. It can be transmitted to the genitals during oral sex.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2. It can be transmitted to the mouth through oral sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that among people ages 14 to 49 years old,
According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s easier for genital herpes to be transmitted from a male to a female, so females have a slightly higher risk of developing the infection.
Herpes symptoms can be so mild that you don’t realize you have it. That’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to transmit the virus to others.
Herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2)
The most obvious signs of genital herpes caused by HSV-2 are groups of blisters (lesions).
They can show up on the vulva and penis, and around the anus or inside of your thighs. You can also have blisters on the vagina, cervix, or testicles.
The blisters can break and turn into sores that cause:
- genital pain
- painful urination, especially if urine touches the sores
- trouble urinating if the urethra becomes blocked
The infection isn’t always that severe, though. Instead of blisters, you might have what appear to be pimples, small insect bites, or even an ingrown hair.
If you’re female, you might have some vaginal discharge that feels a lot like a yeast infection. If you’re male, it might feel like a case of jock itch.
During your first outbreak, you could also feel like you’re coming down with the flu, with symptoms like:
- swollen glands in your throat, under your arms, or near the groin
- general achiness
Herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1)
If you have HSV-1, you might not have any symptoms at all. If you do, it’s likely to include cold sores around your mouth and lips. It’s less common, but you can also develop sores inside your mouth.
The sores may tingle, sting, or burn. In some cases, sores in or around the mouth can become painful when you eat or drink. They generally clear up after a few weeks.
Like HSV-2, you may experience flu-like symptoms during an initial outbreak of HSV-1. Outbreaks can occur as quickly as a few weeks apart, or you may not have another for years.
It’s also possible to develop genital herpes from HSV-1. It can be transmitted from the mouth to the genitals during oral sex. It can also be transmitted if you touch your mouth sores and then your genitals.
An HSV-1 infection can cause the same general symptoms as those of an HSV-2 infection.
Herpes can also be transmitted to your eyes. This can cause pain, tearing, and light sensitivity. You might also have blurry vision and redness around the eye.
Symptoms usually appear within 2 weeks of exposure.
The first outbreak is usually the worst. At first, you might develop some flu-like symptoms. Then you might feel itchy or have an uncomfortable feeling around your genitals or mouth before the lesions appear.
Future outbreaks are likely to be milder and resolve faster.
You may have heard that herpes is only contagious during an outbreak. However, it can be transmitted even though there are no visible signs. You can have herpes and not know it.
For those reasons, it’s important to try to talk with your sexual partners before assuming or blaming.
It can be a challenging situation to cope with. Learning you have herpes can stir a variety of emotions. It’s normal to have mixed feelings and wonder what to expect.
It’s important to make an appointment with your healthcare provider as quickly as possible. If you have herpes, your healthcare provider can provide important information about managing your condition.
Make a list of questions before you go, which can help you get the most out of your visit. Let your healthcare provider know if you’re having trouble understanding the information.
The more you know and understand about herpes, the better prepared you’ll be to manage your symptoms and condition. Your healthcare provider will help you create a treatment plan that works best for your medical needs.
You may not always be able to tell when you’re having a herpes outbreak. However, some common early warning signs that signal an impending attack, can include tingling, itching, and pain. This can happen 1 or 2 days before blisters start to show.
If you have HSV-2, you might have four or five outbreaks a year. How often outbreaks occur varies a lot from person to person. Outbreaks may also decrease over time.
People with HSV-1 tend to have fewer outbreaks.
In time, some people can pinpoint things that trigger an outbreak, such as:
- poor diet
- friction in the genital area
- steroidal treatment for other conditions
Oral herpes may be triggered by prolonged exposure to the sun.
Once you figure out some of your triggers, you can work to avoid them.
If you have any symptoms of herpes, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. In the meantime, take proper precautions to avoid transmitting the infection to other locations on your own body or to others.
There’s no cure for herpes. However, it can be treated.
Here are some things you can do during an outbreak:
- Avoid skin-to-skin contact or sharing personal items until lesions are fully healed.
- Avoid touching the lesions, and wash your hands thoroughly.
- Keep the entire area clean and dry. However, if you have genital lesions, don’t soak in the bathtub.
- Wear loose, breathable underwear while you have genital lesions.
- Get plenty of rest.
Herpes can be treated with antiviral medications, which may help you have fewer, shorter, and less severe outbreaks.