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Diseases & Conditions

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)

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, or “STI.”

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:

  • Swollen glands
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Burning when passing urine
  • Muscle aches

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:

  • Examines the blisters or sores
  • Takes 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 effective if the sores have healed or are several days old. You may need to return to your health care provider for another test, since there is no reliable test that can be done when the sores are not present.

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. It is estimated that one out of every six adults has been infected with herpes. 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 a trusted friend.

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.
  • 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:

  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Surgery
  • Vigorous sex
  • Diet
  • Monthly period

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. Also use a spermicide that contains nonoxynol-9.
  • Limit your number of sex partners.

Where can I learn more?

CDC Hotline: 800.232.4636
www.cdc.gov/std/default.htm

National Herpes Hotline: 919.361.8488

© Copyright 1995-2010 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

Can't find the health information you’re looking for?

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: 1/26/2010...#4248

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