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”).
You can have herpes and have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The first attack of herpes usually follows this course:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
It depends on the person. Some commonly reported triggers include:
Herpes can be spread even when there are no symptoms. To prevent spreading the virus:
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:
If you have herpes, you can still:
If you have herpes, you should also get checked for HIV (AIDS) and other STIs (syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia).
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 12/17/2014