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What Does Herpes Look Like?

Herpes may cause sores in the area where an infection occurs, which is typically either the mouth and lips or the genitals. These sores often last for about a week or two and typically go away on their own, though at-home remedies and antiviral medications can help to relieve symptoms and shorten outbreaks. Some people with herpes do not experience any symptoms.

Understanding Genital vs. Oral Herpes

Herpes refers to an infection of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes:

  • HSV-1, which causes most cases of oral herpes. The main symptom of an HSV-1 infection is cold sores.
  • HSV-2, which causes most cases of genital herpes. The main symptom of an HSV-2 infection is genital blisters.

Once someone gets herpes, the virus never leaves their body. People who have recurring outbreaks usually find that they become less frequent over time.

Oral Herpes Symptoms

Some people do not experience symptoms when they get HSV-1. Those that do have symptoms usually see cold sores appear on their mouth or lips about one to three weeks after infection.

There are some warning signs that you may be about to develop cold sores due to an oral herpes infection, including:

  • Sore throat and/or painful swallowing.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Fever.

The cold sores usually follow a series of stages as they develop:

  • Itching, tingling, or burning is felt near the mouth or lips about 12 to 24 hours before the sores start to appear.
  • Blisters begin to form, causing the area to become swollen, red, and painful. It may look like one larger blister or a cluster of several tiny blisters.
  • The blisters rupture and the yellowish or clear fluid inside oozes out.
  • After two to three days, the sores crust over, sometimes cracking or bleeding as a scab forms.
  • The scab falls off, then the area underneath heals completely in about one to two weeks.

Cold sores can continue to come back in subsequent outbreaks. Sometimes, these outbreaks are triggered by certain factors, such as:

  • Sunburn.
  • Fatigue.
  • Stress.
  • Hormonal changes (including pregnancy and menstruation).
  • Extreme temperatures.
  • Fever or illness.
  • Dry, cracked lips.

Genital Herpes Symptoms

Most people with genital herpes don’t develop any symptoms right away after becoming infected. Some people never develop genital herpes symptoms, while others start to see symptoms develop months or years after the infection occurs.

The most common symptom of genital herpes is genital sores. These sores may occur in different areas for men and women:

  • Men can get sores on the:
    •  Penis.
    • Scrotum.
  • Women can get sores on the:
    • External genitals.
    • Vaginal area.
    • Cervix.
  • Both men and women can get sores on the:
    • Anus.
    • Urethra.
    • Buttocks.
    • Thighs.

The development of genital herpes sores usually involves the following progression of stages:

  • Burning, tingling, or itching is felt near where the virus entered the body. If it is the first outbreak of genital herpes, additional symptoms may include fever, chills, fatigue, muscle aches, nausea, and swollen glands.
  • Fluid-filled blisters appear on the genitals. These tiny blisters may appear in clusters and are sometimes mistaken for other skin conditions, such as pimples or ingrown hairs.
  • The blisters break open and the fluid oozes out, leaving an open sore that is very painful to the touch. These sores are very contagious and increase the risk of herpes transmission.
  • The sores crust over and eventually the scab falls off. The area usually heals completely within a week or two.

Other genital herpes symptoms which may occur during an outbreak include:

  • Painful urination and/or difficulty emptying the bladder.
  • Vaginal discharge.
  • Decreased appetite.

The first outbreak is usually the worst. After that, outbreaks are typically shorter and less severe.

Oral and Genital Herpes Treatment

There is no cure for oral or genital herpes. However, some methods can be used to help manage symptoms and make outbreaks less frequent.

Try the following at-home herpes remedies to help ease symptoms:

  • Keep the area clean and dry.
  • Apply warm or cold compresses.
  • Apply petroleum jelly to reduce pain and irritation.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers.

Most outbreaks clear up on their own within a few weeks. However, you may want to see a doctor if your outbreaks are frequent, painful, or troublesome. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • Applying an antiviral cream or ointment to relieve symptoms like itching and burning.
  • Using antiviral pills or shots to shorten the outbreak.

For people who struggle with herpes symptoms, doctors may recommend taking daily antiviral medication, like valacyclovir, to reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks. If you’ve been previously diagnosed with herpes, Nurx can prescribe oral or genital herpes treatment online and deliver the medication to your door with free shipping. To request herpes treatment from Nurx, get started here.

Herpes Transmission

Both types of herpes are contagious, especially when someone has open sores. However, the virus can potentially be transmitted even when no sores are present.

Here’s how each type of herpes is usually transmitted:

  • HSV-1 is spread through intimate contact or saliva. It can be passed by kissing or sharing personal items, like towels, utensils, lip balm, razors, or straws, with someone who is infected.
  • HSV-2 is spread through vaginal and anal sex. It may also be transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact without penetration.

In some cases, a person can get an HSV-1 infection on the genitals or an HSV-2 infection on their mouth as a result of oral sex.

Herpes Prevention

You can reduce the risk of transmission for herpes by taking simple preventative measures. If you want to prevent oral herpes, you should:

  • Avoid kissing or intimate contact with someone who has cold sores.
  • Avoid sharing items like razors, towels, utensils, or lip balm with someone who has cold sores.

If you already have HSV-1, you may be able to reduce the frequency of oral herpes outbreaks by getting enough rest, staying healthy, and wearing lip balm with SPF.

To reduce the risk of getting genital herpes, you should:

  • Always wear a condom during sex.
  • Avoid intimate skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a genital herpes outbreak.

If you already have HSV-2, you can take daily antiviral medications (also known as suppressive therapy) to reduce the risk of passing it to others as well as the frequency and severity of your outbreaks. It’s important to remember that condoms do not provide 100% protection from genital herpes.

Further Reading

Herpes – oral, MedlinePlus, November 2019.

Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 2017.

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