Herpes is a common viral infection. It does not have a cure, but medication can be used to treat and/or decrease outbreaks. With time, outbreaks usually get less frequent and less severe.
There are 2 types of herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 has traditionally been associated with oral cold sores and HSV-2 with genital herpes. However, HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes, and HSV-2 can cause oral cold sores.
Most people infected with herpes do not know they have the virus, showing either no symptoms or only mild symptoms. Manifestation of symptoms is known as an outbreak.
- Oral herpes symptoms include open sores or blisters around the mouth. Sores can be tender or painful and can take 2 to 4 weeks to clear up. You may experience itching or burning around your mouth before sores appear.
- Genital herpes symptoms include open sores or blisters in and around the genital and rectal areas. The first outbreak is often the most painful, with additional symptoms similar to the flu, such as fever, body aches, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes. Repeat outbreaks tend to be less severe and more common in the first year of infection. Many people see a decrease or disappearance of outbreaks after the first year of infections.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 can both still be spread even if you don’t show any symptoms.
There is no cure for herpes, but medications are available to help prevent or treat symptoms. Most medications are pills taken orally. Depending on the frequency of your outbreaks, your healthcare provider might prescribe:
- Intermittent treatment: an antiviral drug taken when an outbreak occurs to treat symptoms
- Suppressive treatment: an antiviral drug usually taken daily to reduce the number of outbreaks
When to Seek Medical Attention
If you experience any of the above symptoms, consult with your healthcare provider. Routine screening for herpes is not recommended in those without symptoms.
Causes & Prevention
Spread through skin-to-skin contact or contact with oral secretions. Infection can occur in childhood, long before the start of sexual activity. Methods of transmission can include:
- Sharing things like cups, utensils, or lip balm
- Mouth-to-genital contact during oral sex
- Birth (though rare, herpes can spread from mother to baby during delivery)
Spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sexual contact. Penetration and/or ejaculation do not need to occur to spread the infection.
As with all STIs, the only way to avoid all risk of infection is to abstain from sex (vaginal, anal, and oral) and intimate skin-to-skin contact.
If you are sexually active:
- Use condoms and/or dental dams consistently every time you have sex (anal, oral, or vaginal)
- Communicate with your partner(s) about STIs, testing and using condoms and/or dental dams.
- If using sex toys, follow the instructions on how to clean them properly after each use. If they have no batteries/electrical wires, wash with soap and water and allow to dry.