What is herpes?
Herpes is a very common, highly contagious infection caused by two types of viruses: herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). Herpes typically causes sores on and around the mouth, genitals, and in rare cases, eyes. Although it doesn’t usually cause serious health problems, herpes outbreaks can be painful and disruptive.
Herpes is not curable, but there are medications that can help shorten or prevent outbreaks. Some medications can also help reduce the risk of passing the infection on to your partner.
There are two types of herpes: genital and oral.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a common STI that happens when a person gets HSV-1 or HSV-2 on or around their genitals. Genital herpes caused by HSV-2 can be spread from the genitals to the mouth through sex.
What is oral herpes?
Oral herpes is a common infection that causes sores or blisters on and around the mouth. It is typically caused by HSV-1, but can also be caused by HSV-2.
Most people who have oral herpes got it during childhood or young adulthood through non-sexual contact with saliva. Oral herpes caused by HSV-1 can be spread from the mouth to the genitals through sex.
Who is at risk for herpes?
Any sexually active person is at risk for herpes.
How is herpes transmitted?
Herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact with infected areas, often during activities such as kissing and vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a partner who has herpes, regardless of whether they’re having an outbreak. Herpes is most contagious when open, wet sores are present, but it is possible to spread herpes without sores.
It is possible to get herpes without having sex. While the skin of the mouth and genitals are easily infected, other areas can become infected through cuts and abrasions. Herpes can spread from one part of the body to another, so it is important to wash your hands after touching a herpes sore.
Herpes can also be spread from a pregnant person to their child, particularly during delivery.
Herpes is not spread through contact with everyday items such as toilet seats, bedding, dishes, soap, or towels.
How many people are living with herpes?
Herpes is extremely common. In the United States, more than one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 have genital herpes and about half have oral herpes.
What are herpes symptoms?
The most common symptoms of herpes are sores on or around the mouth or genitals, but most people don’t have symptoms.
Genital herpes symptoms:
- Painful blisters on the vagina, vulva, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, butt, or inner thighs
- Painful or difficult urination
- Itching or pain around genitals
People with genital herpes infections caused by HSV-2 might experience flu-like symptoms, particularly the first time they have an outbreak:
- Swollen lymph nodes
The first genital herpes outbreak typically lasts 2 to 4 weeks, but the virus never goes away. Although the first outbreak is often the worst, repeated outbreaks are common. Sometimes outbreaks are accompanied by warning signs like itching, burning, or tingling in the genital area.
People with compromised immune systems could also have more severe infections.
Oral herpes symptoms:
- Sores in and around mouth (sometimes called “cold sores” or “fever blisters”)
Oral herpes outbreaks typically resolve on their own within a few weeks. While oral herpes is typically harmless in children and adults, it can cause serious complications for newborns.
How can I reduce the risk of getting or spreading herpes?
There are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting herpes. The best way to avoid herpes is to avoid coming in contact with the mouth or genitals of another person. Safer sex practices such as using a condom or dental dam the right way every time you have sex whether or not sores are present will lower your risk of getting herpes.
If you have herpes, let your partner know so they can protect themselves. Avoid having sex if you or your partner are having an outbreak and learn the early warning signs of an outbreak. Talk with your doctor about available treatment options.
It is important to avoid having sex, even with a condom, while you or your partner is having an outbreak.
How do I get tested?
The only way to find out if you have herpes is to be tested and the best time to be tested is during an outbreak. If you have sores or other symptoms of herpes, your healthcare provider can swab them and test the fluid. If you do not have sores, ask your doctor if a blood test is right for you.
Herpes testing is not typically recommended unless symptoms are present.
For more information on getting tested for herpes, check out our testing quiz.
I tested positive for herpes, what’s next?
If you have herpes, it is important to notify your partner(s) so they may protect themselves. As mentioned before, herpes is very common and although it can be painful and disruptive, it does not typically cause serious health problems.
Although there is no cure for herpes, there are treatment options to make outbreaks and symptoms more manageable. There are medications available to prevent and shorten outbreaks as well as make it less likely to pass the infection on to your partner(s). Safer sex practices will also reduce risk.
People who have herpes are twice as likely to get HIV as those who do not. Routine testing for HIV and other STIs is recommended.