8 Things to Know About Herpes

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Ashley Festa on June 29, 2020
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    Herpes Information and Facts
    Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is very contagious. More than 1 in 6 people from age 14 to 49 have genital herpes. There’s no cure for genital herpes, though symptoms and outbreaks may come and go. For most people, the virus causes only unpleasant symptoms, but it can be dangerous for newborns and people with weakened immune systems. The virus can be spread even when a person isn’t showing symptoms. Get more herpes information here.
  • Herpes Simplex Virus
    1. There are eight types of herpes viruses that infect humans.
    One kind of herpesvirus, the herpes simplex virus (HSV), causes both oral and genital herpes. There are two types of HSV. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) can both cause oral or genital herpes. Most often, HSV-1 causes oral herpes and HSV-2 causes genital herpes. The other types of herpesviruses (from the Herpesviridae family) can cause many other types of diseases, such as chickenpox, shingles, infectious mononucleosis, and certain cancers, among others.

    Herpesviruses remain dormant in the body even after the initial infection is cleared up; sometimes, the virus reactivates later on.
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    2. Becoming sexually active at a young age is a risk factor for genital herpes.
    People who have multiple sex partners are also at higher risk for getting HSV-2. Someone who currently has or had another sexually transmitted infection, or people with a weak immune system have an increased risk of becoming infected. Adults, infants and children can become infected with HSV-1 through an adult who carries the virus, even when symptoms aren’t present. Women have a higher risk of getting herpes than men.
  • Herpes Cold Sore on Mouth
    3. Tiny, painful blisters are a symptom of herpes, but there are other signs too.
    The fluid-filled blisters usually appear after an itchy or burning sensation in the affected area. When the blisters break open, the fluid oozes out and becomes crusty before healing. The sores can stick around for a week or longer. With oral herpes, blisters usually form on the lips and mouth, but may also appear on the face or tongue. With genital herpes, the sores form on the penis, vagina, cervix, buttocks or anus.

    With either type of herpes, sores can also develop anywhere else on the skin. Symptoms also include fever, headache, body aches, swollen lymph nodes in the neck or groin, and a burning sensation while urinating. Many people don’t have any symptoms.
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    4. Herpes can’t be cured, and outbreaks may occur throughout your lifetime.
    After the first outbreak, the blisters heal, but the herpes simplex virus remains. Your body does not clear the virus, and there is no cure for HSV. Instead, the virus becomes inactive, also called dormant or latent, in the nerve cells near the spinal cord. You can have another outbreak later, which reactivates symptoms in the same area. It can also reactivate without producing symptoms, but the virus reappears on the skin or mucous membranes and can be spread to others.

    Mental stress and fever (from another condition) can trigger outbreaks, but the reason for the reactivation is often unknown. Typically, recurrent outbreaks are less severe and heal faster than the initial outbreak. HSV outbreaks become less frequent and milder over time.
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    5. Herpes raises your risk of other STIs as well as other complications.
    Genital sores can cause swelling in the urethra, sometimes so severely that a catheter is necessary to empty the bladder. Herpes can also cause rectal inflammation, which most often affects men who have sex with men. The virus can also spread to the eyes, which can cause pain, light sensitivity, and discharge. You may also experience a gritty feeling in your eye. Without treatment, the infection can lead to scarring, cloudy vision or blindness. In rare cases, the herpes simplex virus causes meningitis.
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    6. Newborns have a high risk of herpes complications.
    A mother can pass the herpes virus to her baby during childbirth, which can be fatal for the newborn if untreated. Even with treatment, the baby may have brain damage or permanent blindness. The doctor will likely recommend a cesarean section if the mother is having an outbreak during labor. People with a weakened immune system are also at high risk; they may experience more severe symptoms, including enlarging sores that take a much longer time to heal. For these people, the infection could spread throughout the body, causing sores in the lungs, colon and esophagus.
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    7. There’s no cure for herpes, but it can be treated.
    There’s no cure for any type of herpes virus, and there’s no vaccine to prevent a genital herpes infection. But antiviral medicines can help treat outbreaks. In addition to helping shorten the duration of an outbreak, daily doses of antiviral medicine can help prevent the spread of the virus to sexual partners.
  • Cropped shot view of young woman sitting on bed opening condom
    8. You can take steps to prevent a herpes infection.
    Because you can become infected with genital herpes from someone who has no symptoms, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself. The only way to ensure you don’t get this sexually transmitted infection is to avoid any kind of sex: vaginal, anal and oral. Sex within a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who doesn’t have herpes is also safe. Using condoms correctly every time you have sex can help protect you, but isn’t completely effective because the virus can be present on skin outside what is covered by a condom.

    If you are having sex with someone who has genital herpes, reduce your risk by avoiding any kind of sex while your partner is experiencing symptoms. Your partner can also take a daily antiviral medicine to help prevent transmission. If you do have herpes, avoid touching the sores to prevent spreading the infection to other parts of your body.
8 Things to Know About Herpes | Herpes Information

About The Author

Ashley Festa is a Greenville, S.C.-based freelance writer and editor who has been writing professionally for nearly two decades. In addition to Healthgrades, she also has written for Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, the University of Texas at Arlington School of Nursing and Health Innovation, and Fit Pregnancy magazine.
  1. Overview of Herpesvirus Infections. Merck Manual. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/infections/herpesvirus-infections/overview-of-herpesvirus-infections
  2. Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Infections. Merck Manual. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/infections/herpesvirus-infections/herpes-simplex-virus-hsv-infections
  3. Herpes Simplex. Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/herpessimplex.html
  4. Herpes Simplex: Overview. American Academy of Dermatology Association. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/herpes-simplex-overview
  5. Genital Herpes. Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/genitalherpes.html
  6. Genital Herpes Treatment and Care. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/treatment.htm
  7. Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
  8. Genital herpes. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/genital-herpes/symptoms-causes/syc-20356161
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jun 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.