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What Does a Herpes Rash Look Like?

A herpes rash looks like a cluster of small, fluid-filled blisters near the mouth or genitals. The location of the rash depends on which type of herpes virus you have. The rashes might develop repeatedly, but you can take medications to help prevent or shorten outbreaks. Many people with the herpes virus never develop a rash or any other symptoms of an infection.

What Is a Herpes Rash?

A herpes rash, also known as an outbreak, is the body’s response to the presence of the herpes virus. This virus causes small sores to develop on the skin, often around the nose and mouth or genitals, although they can develop anywhere on the body. The location of the outbreak often depends on where the affected person was first exposed to the virus.

At this point, no cure is available for herpes, which means people can experience outbreaks of the herpes rash at any time. The first outbreak is often the worst and most painful, with future outbreaks lessening in severity.

Oral Herpes Rash

Most oral herpes rashes are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). The virus can lead to blisters or rashes that develop primarily on and around the lips (known as cold sores) but can also appear on the gums, mouth, or throat.

When an oral herpes outbreak occurs, small, red blisters filled with a clear, yellowish fluid appear. Sometimes, these spots merge together and form a larger blister. When the blisters break, the fluid oozes out and leaves behind an open, painful sore that crusts over once it dries. It takes about two weeks for most cold sores to develop, break, and then heal.

Oral herpes can be transmitted to other areas of the body as it is passed through skin-to-skin contact with the infected area.

Genital Herpes Rash

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is the cause of most genital herpes. These rashes occur in the genital area, which can include the labia, vagina, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, thighs, or buttocks.

The rash appears as small, painful blisters with clear or yellowish fluid inside. These sores eventually break. The shallow sores crust over and heal in about a week or so, although in some people, the rashes take up to six weeks to clear up. During an outbreak, you should not engage in sexual contact with a person who is not infected with the virus, as doing so can spread it. Any type of contact to the affected area can cause the virus to spread to your sexual partner.

Genital herpes is generally spread through vaginal and anal sex, although it can be transmitted through oral sex. The risk of spreading the virus increases during an outbreak.

What Causes a Herpes Rash?

The herpes virus causes the rash to break out on the skin. After the initial exposure, the herpes virus invades the nerves in the body that supply the skin area, remaining in those nerves for the rest of the person’s life. When it is active, the virus moves to the mucous membrane or skin of the infected area and copies itself, causing the outbreak to occur. It will then move back into the nerves to remain dormant until the next outbreak.

Certain factors can increase your risk of having outbreaks. Some of these factors include:

  • Fevers
  • Illnesses
  • Menstruation
  • Sun exposure
  • Stress
  • Surgery

What Are Common Symptoms of a Herpes Rash?

In many people, the first sign of a herpes rash outbreak is an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the area where the outbreak will occur. The first outbreak may also result in:

  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Red, swollen gums
  • Fevers

How Is a Herpes Rash Diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose a herpes rash based on the appearance of the blisters and lesions on the skin, as well as with laboratory tests. HSV-2 is usually diagnosed through a blood test, although a doctor can also swab the sores to test for the herpes virus.

Other medical conditions can cause skin rashes that look similar to the herpes rash. One of these is shingles, which is a viral infection that typically causes a single strip of blisters wrapping around one side of the torso. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Symptoms of shingles include tingling, numbness, pain, burning, skin that is sensitive to the touch, itching, and fluid-filled blisters that open and crust over. These symptoms are similar to those experienced during a herpes outbreak.

Contact dermatitis can also cause a skin rash that is itchy and red. It occurs when your skin comes into contact with something, causing an allergic reaction. You may experience contact dermatitis in response to certain soaps, plants, jewelry materials, fragrances, or cosmetics. In addition to the rash, you may experience scaly, cracked, or dry skin, tenderness, burning, swelling, or crusty bumps and blisters. Since contact dermatitis can affect the face and genitals, people often confuse it with genital herpes.

What Treatment Options Are Available for a Herpes Rash?

Although herpes cannot be cured, it can be managed to prevent rashes and sores. Many people with herpes do not develop clinical signs, though it’s still possible to spread the infection even when no symptoms are present. If you experience repeated or severe outbreaks, your healthcare provider might prescribe antiviral medications that can help shorten outbreaks or make them less frequent. You can take an antiviral pill every day to prevent outbreaks, which is called prophylaxis. Healthcare providers often recommend this treatment to patients who have frequent, painful outbreaks.

Antiviral ointments and creams can also treat the symptoms, which include tingling, itching, burning, or pain. The most commonly prescribed antiviral medications include valacyclovir, acyclovir, and famciclovir. Over-the-counter creams and ointments are available, which may lessen symptoms and shorten the healing period.

When Should I See a Doctor for a Herpes Rash?

If you experience what you believe to be a herpes rash for the first time, you should see a doctor to confirm your suspicions. After being diagnosed with the herpes virus, future outbreaks generally aren’t cause for concern in otherwise healthy individuals. However, if you have a weakened immune system or any type of long-term health condition, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer, the virus can cause other complications. Organ transplant recipients who suspect they might have herpes should also contact their doctor.

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