Herpes simplex is a viral infection that typically affects the mouth, genitals, or anal area. It is contagious and can cause outbreaks of sores and other symptoms.
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a highly prevalent infection globally, with the most common type affecting around 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 years. It spreads rapidly through direct contact with a person who carries HSV. The sexual transmission of some types of HSV is also possible.
The majority of people with HSV will not show any symptoms at all, but they can still pass on the virus. The symptoms of HSV are typically mild but can cause discomfort.
HSV can be particularly harmful to those with weakened immune systems, such as infants.
This article will outline the symptoms of HSV, the different types of the virus, and how to treat it.
It is common for a person with HSV to have no noticeable symptoms. However, even without having symptoms, a person can still pass the virus on to someone else.
When people do experience symptoms, these will usually include sores. These are blisters that develop on the surface of the skin and may be itchy or uncomfortable. They can break open and ooze fluid.
Sores can develop anywhere, but they usually occur around the mouth, genitals, or anus, depending on the type of HSV. Most sores emerge within the first 20 days after becoming infected and can last around 7 to 10 days.
Other symptoms of HSV can include:
- localized tingling, itching, or burning
- flu-like symptoms
- problems urinating
- eye infections
The symptoms of HSV typically occur in outbreaks that can last between 2 and 6 weeks, depending on the type of HSV. The frequency of these outbreaks can vary.
There are two main types of HSV:
Herpes simplex virus type 1
Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the most common form of HSV.
Due to its constant presence worldwide, the medical community considers HSV-1 to be an endemic disease.
HSV-1 typically leads to oral herpes, as the vast majority of HSV-1 cases affect the mouth and its surrounding area. However, it is possible for HSV-1 to affect other areas of the body, such as the genitals.
HSV-1 often develops during childhood and is a lifelong condition. It can spread through non-sexual contact with saliva, such as kissing.
Herpes simplex virus type 2
Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) spreads through sexual contact and is a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI).
HSV-2 typically leads to genital herpes, which means that symptoms usually develop around the genital and anal areas. It is also a lifelong condition, and symptoms only appear during flare-ups.
Both types of HSV develop as a result of direct contact with the virus.
HSV-1 most commonly spreads through oral-to-oral contact, which can be with sores, saliva, or the area around the mouth. Transmission may also occur due to sharing lip balm, a toothbrush, or any other product that has come into contact with HSV.
People have a much higher risk of contracting HSV-1 if they come into contact with someone who has an active outbreak of symptoms. In some cases, it is also possible for people to transmit HSV-1 during sexual activity.
Transmission of HSV-2 almost always takes place during sexual contact. This includes any contact with the skin, sores, saliva, or bodily fluids of someone with HSV-2, and it can occur during vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
It is usually possible for doctors to diagnose HSV by carrying out a physical examination of symptoms during an outbreak. The sores are easy to identify as a sign of HSV infection.
A doctor will also ask questions about the symptoms. If they suspect HSV-2, they may ask about a person’s sexual health history.
It is also possible that they will take a sample from a sore. Alternatively, if the individual does not have symptoms, the doctor can use a blood test to detect the infection.
Although there is no cure for either type of HSV, symptoms are often not present, and treatment may not be necessary.
When symptoms do occur, they often resolve without treatment after several weeks.
Treatments are available to help control symptoms and reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Some medications can also reduce the risk of transferring HSV to others.
Antiviral creams or ointments are available for the sores. These treatments should help relieve the itching, stinging, and discomfort.
Examples of antiviral medications include:
These medications are also available in the form of a pill or an injection.
HSV is a highly prevalent viral infection. It spreads rapidly through direct contact, and the chances of contracting the virus are relatively high.
In many cases, a person will not experience any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they appear in outbreaks. The first outbreak is typically the worst.
There is no cure for HSV, but antiviral treatments can help people manage the condition.
Medically reviewed by Jill Seladi-Schulman, Ph.D.
Written by Jon Johnson