There are two types of herpes: oral and genital. They’re both common and they’re both caused by viruses.
The American Sexual Health Association estimates that 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.
The virus spreads through saliva during close contact like kissing or sharing personal items, such as lipstick or eating utensils. Oral herpes is likely to occur early in life. It can spread to the genitals during oral sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that among people 14 to 19 years old, more than 1 out of every 6 have genital herpes.
It’s easier for genital herpes to spread from a male to a female, so females have a slightly higher risk.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2. It can spread to the mouth through oral sex.
Symptoms can become apparent right away or the virus can remain dormant 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 doctor to find out if it’s herpes.
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 spread 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, penis, around the anus, or around the 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
It’s not 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 a male, it might feel like a case of jock itch.
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 get 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.
HSV-1 doesn’t cause the flu-like symptoms associated with HSV-2. 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 spread from the mouth to the genitals during oral sex, or if you touch your mouth sores, then your genitals. This can cause the same general symptoms as those of HSV-2.
Herpes can also spread to your eyes. This can cause pain, tearing, and light sensitivity. Your might also have blurry vision and redness around the eye.
Symptoms usually appear within two 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 uncomfortable around the 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. But it can be passed on even though there are no visible signs. And you can have herpes and not know it.
For those reasons, it’s not helpful to get caught up in blame. Still, learning you have herpes can stir a variety of emotions. It’s normal to have mixed feelings and wonder what to expect.
That’s why it’s important to make a doctor’s appointment as quickly as possible. If you do have herpes, a doctor can provide important information about managing herpes.
Make a list of questions before you go so you’ll get the most out of your visit. Let the doctor know if you’re having trouble processing the information.
The more you understand about herpes, the better equipped you’ll be to handle it. You’ll probably feel a bit more confident once your treatment plan is in place.
People can’t always tell when they’re having a herpes outbreak. But some have early warning signs that signal an impending attack, such as tingling, itching, and pain. This can happen a day or two before blisters start to show.
If you have HSV-2, you might have four or five outbreaks a year. But this varies a lot from person to person, and outbreaks may 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 doctor as soon as possible. In the meantime, take proper precautions to avoid spreading it on your own body or to others.
There’s no cure for herpes, so you’ll always carry the virus. But genital herpes can be treated.
Here are some things you can do during an outbreak:
- avoid skin-to-skin contact until lesions are fully healed
- try not to touch the lesions, and wash your hands thoroughly
- keep the entire area clean and dry, but 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.