What is herpes?
Herpes is a common virus that causes sores on your genitals and/or mouth. Herpes can be annoying and painful, but it usually doesn’t lead to serious health problems.
What are the symptoms of herpes?
The most common herpes symptom are sores on your genitals or mouth. But most of the time there are no symptoms, so lots of people don’t know they have herpes.
Herpes might not have any symptoms.
You or your partner may not have any herpes symptoms that you can see or feel, or the signs of herpes may be so mild you don’t even notice them. Sometimes people confuse herpes symptoms with other things, like pimples, ingrown hairs, and the flu.
Herpes symptoms come and go, but that doesn’t mean the infection goes away or that you can’t spread it to other people. Once you have herpes, it stays in your body for life.
Genital herpes symptoms
The most common symptoms of genital herpes is a group of itchy or painful blisters on your vagina, vulva, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum (balls), butt, or the inside of your thighs. The blisters break and turn into sores.
You might have these other symptoms too:
- burning when you pee if your urine touches the herpes sores
- having trouble peeing because the sores and swelling are blocking your urethra
- pain around your genitals
If your genital herpes is caused by HSV-2, you might also have flu-like symptoms, such as:
- swollen glands in your pelvic area, throat, and under your arms
- feeling achy and tired
When blisters and other genital herpes symptoms show up, it’s called an outbreak. The first outbreak (also called the “first episode” or “initial herpes”) usually starts about 2 to 20 days after you get infected with herpes. But sometimes it takes years for the first outbreak to happen.
The first herpes outbreak lasts about 2 to 4 weeks. Even though the blisters go away, the virus stays in your body and can cause sores again. It’s really common to get repeat outbreaks, especially during the first year you have herpes. You might notice some warning signs a few hours or days before outbreaks flare up, like itching, burning, or a tingly feeling on your genitals.
Herpes outbreaks are no fun, but the first one is the worst. Repeat outbreaks are usually shorter and less painful. Most people with herpes get fewer outbreaks as time goes on, and some stop having them altogether.
Herpes symptoms may be more painful and last longer in people with illnesses that damage your immune system — like leukemia and HIV.
Oral herpes symptoms
Usually, oral herpes is less painful than genital herpes and doesn’t make you feel as sick. Oral herpes causes sores on your lips or around your mouth — called cold sores or fever blisters. You can also get sores inside your mouth, but that usually only happens the first few times you have symptoms.
Cold sores last a few weeks and then go away on their own. They can pop up again in weeks, months, or years. Cold sores are annoying, but usually harmless in kids and adults — they can be really dangerous to newborn babies, though.
Herpes is a common infection.
Herpes is a super-common infection that stays in your body for life. More than half of Americans have oral herpes, and about 1 out of 6 Americans has genital herpes. So chances are a few people you know are living with herpes.
Herpes is caused by two different but similar viruses: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Both kinds can make sores pop up on and around your vulva, vagina, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, butt, inner thighs, lips, mouth, throat, and rarely, your eyes.
Herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact with infected areas, often during vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, and kissing. Herpes causes outbreaks of itchy, painful blisters or sores that come and go. Many people with herpes don’t notice the sores or mistake them for something else, so they might not know they’re infected. You can spread herpes even when you don’t have any sores or symptoms.
There’s no cure for herpes, but medication can ease your symptoms and lower your chances of giving the virus to other people. And the good news is, outbreaks usually become less frequent over time, and even though herpes can sometimes be uncomfortable and painful, it’s not dangerous. People with herpes have relationships, have sex, and live perfectly healthy lives.
What’s the difference between genital herpes and oral herpes?
Because there are 2 different kinds of herpes simplex viruses (HSV-1 and HSV-2) that can live on many body parts, lots of people are confused about what to call these infections. But it’s actually pretty simple:
- When you get either HSV-1 or HSV-2 on or around your genitals (vulva, vagina, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, butt, inner thighs), it’s called genital herpes.
- When you get either HSV-1 or HSV-2 in or around your lips, mouth, and throat, it’s called oral herpes. Oral herpes sores are sometimes called cold sores or fever blisters.
HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes, and HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes — each strain prefers to live on its favorite area. But it’s totally possible for both types of herpes simplex to infect either area. For example, you can get HSV-1 on your genitals if someone with a cold sore on their lips gives you oral sex. And you can get HSV-2 in your mouth if you give oral sex to someone with HSV-2 on their genitals.
How do you get herpes?
Herpes is easily spread from skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. You can get it when your genitals and/or mouth touch their genitals and/or mouth — usually during oral, anal, and vaginal sex.
Herpes can be passed even if the penis or tongue doesn’t go all the way in the vagina, anus, or mouth. You don’t have to cum to spread herpes. All it takes is some quick skin-to-skin touching. You can also get herpes from kissing someone who has oral herpes.
The skin on your genitals, mouth, and eyes can be infected easily. Other areas of skin may get infected if there’s a way for the herpes virus to get in, like through a cut, burn, rash, or other sores. You don’t have to have sex to get herpes. Sometimes herpes can be passed in non-sexual ways, like if a parent with a cold sore gives you a peck on the lips. Most people with oral herpes got it when they were kids. A mother can pass genital herpes to a baby during vaginal childbirth, but that’s pretty rare.
You can spread herpes to other parts of your body if you touch a herpes sore and then touch your mouth, genitals, or eyes without washing your hands first. You can also pass herpes to someone else this way.
Herpes is most contagious when sores are open and wet, because fluid from herpes blisters easily spreads the virus. But herpes can also “shed” and get passed to others when there are no sores and your skin looks totally normal.
Most people get herpes from someone who doesn’t have any sores. It may live in your body for years without causing any symptoms, so it’s really hard to know for sure when and how you got it. That’s why so many people have herpes — it’s a pretty sneaky infection.
Because the virus dies quickly outside the body, you can’t get herpes from hugging, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, or sitting on toilet seats.
Should I get tested for herpes?
Getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you have herpes. If you have sores or other symptoms of herpes, see a nurse or doctor.
What happens during a herpes test?
If you have blisters or sores, your doctor or nurse will gently take a sample of fluid from the sores with a swab and test it.
If you don’t have any sores, talk with your doctor or nurse about whether a blood test for herpes makes sense for you. But herpes tests aren’t normally recommended unless you do have symptoms.
The idea of getting tested may seem scary, but try to chill out. STD testing is a regular part of being a responsible adult and taking care of your health. And herpes tests are quick and usually painless.
Where can I get tested for herpes?
You can get tested for herpes and other STDs at your doctor’s office, a community health clinic, the health department, or your local Planned Parenthood health center.
STD testing isn’t usually part of your regular checkup or gynecologist exam — you have to ask for it. Be honest with your nurse or doctor so they can help you figure out which tests are best for you. Don’t be embarrassed: Your doctor is here to help you, not to judge you.