What is herpes?
There are two subtypes of herpes simplex viruses. The first type is herpes simplex type 1 (or HSV-1). HSV-1 occurs most often on or near the mouth and appears as a chancre or cold sore. The second type, herpes simplex type 2 (or HSV-2), occurs most often on or near the sex organs and is sometimes called “genital herpes.” Herpes virus is spread by close personal contact, such as kissing or sexual intercourse. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (also referred to as an “STI” or “STD”).
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
You can have herpes and have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The first attack of herpes usually follows this course:
- The skin on or near the sex organ becomes inflamed. The skin might burn, itch, or be painful.
- Blister-like sores appear on or near the sex organ.
- Sores open, scab over, and then heal.
Symptoms that might also be present when the virus first appears include:
The first outbreak of herpes can last for several weeks. After the outbreak, the virus retreats to the nervous system, where it remains inactive (latent) until something triggers it to become active again.
How can I know if I have herpes?
If you think you have herpes, or any STI, contact your health care provider. He or she can examine you and perform tests to determine if you have an STI.
To check for herpes, your health care provider will likely:
- Examine the blisters or sores
- Take a sample of tissue from the sore to look at under a microscope or to send to a laboratory to determine if herpes is present.
The test for herpes is not reliable if the sores have healed or are several days old. You may need to return to your health care provider for another test when the sores are present. Blood tests for herpes are available, but can’t determine if the blisters seen during your exam are related to herpes. The blood tests can only tell if you have been exposed to herpes sometime in your lifetime.
Can herpes be cured?
There is no cure for herpes. Once a person has the virus, it remains in the body. The virus lies latent in the nerve cells until something triggers it to become active again. These herpes “outbreaks,” which can include the painful herpes sores, can be controlled with medication.
What can I do if I have herpes?
Many people who find out they have herpes feel depressed knowing they will always have the virus and can give it to others. But you are not alone. Herpes is one of the most common STIs, both in the US and worldwide. Exact numbers of people affected are not known. This is because many people don’t realize they have it, especially if symptoms are minor and are not bothersome. If you have herpes, you should:
- Learn all you can about it. Information will help you to manage your disease and feel better about yourself.
- Talk about your illness with your doctor.
If you have herpes, you can still:
- Have sex if you use a condom (and/or have your partner use a condom), and you tell your partner about your illness. Some couples, who have sexual relations only with each other, may choose not to use condoms even though one partner has herpes. Because each situation is different, you should talk to your doctor if this is a right choice for you in your relationship.
- Have children. Women with herpes can still give birth to healthy babies. If you have herpes and plan to have children, discuss your illness with your health care provider.
If you have herpes, you should also get checked for HIV (AIDS) and other STIs (syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia).
How can I prevent spreading herpes?
Herpes can be spread even when there are no symptoms. To prevent spreading the virus:
- Use a condom when you have sex. (Using a condom will not always prevent the spread of herpes because some sores may be in a place that cannot be covered by a condom.)
- Don't have sex when sores are present.
How often do outbreaks happen?
How often outbreaks occur depends on the person. On average, people with herpes experience about four outbreaks a year. The first outbreak usually is the most painful and takes the longest to heal. The pain and recovery time often decrease with each outbreak.
What triggers an outbreak?
It depends on the person. Some commonly reported triggers include:
- Vigorous sex
- Monthly period
Can outbreaks be treated?
Talk to your doctor about certain antiviral medications including acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. These drugs can reduce the length of time and severity of herpes illness if started within 72 hours of visual lesions. These medications can be taken during outbreaks only, or even daily for prevention depending on the number of outbreaks per year.
How can I protect myself from herpes?
- Do not have sex with someone who has an open sore on his or her sex organs.
- Always use a latex condom during sex.
- Limit your number of sex partners.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Accessed 11/14/2014.
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Genital Herpes Accessed 11/14/2014.
© Copyright 1995-2015 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.
This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 12/17/2014...#4248