What is herpes gladiatorum?

Herpes gladiatorum: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

By Bethany Cadman

Reviewed by Nancy Choi, MD

Herpes gladiatorum is an infection caused by herpes simplex virus type 1, a virus similar to that which causes cold sores. It is common among those who engage in high-contact sports, such as wrestling, and is also known as mat herpes. Those infected with herpes will carry the virus with them for life as there is no cure.
There will be periods where the virus is inactive and no symptoms are present, and times where it is active and causes various symptoms and flare-ups.

When the virus is active, the person carrying it is infectious and can spread herpes gladiatorum to others. The virus can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and is easily passed from one person to the next.

In this article, we examine the symptoms of herpes gladiatorum and the parts of the body that can be affected. We also take a look at diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of the condition.

Fast facts on herpes:
  • Herpes gladiatorum is triggered by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1).
  • Between 30 and 90 percent of adults have been exposed to the herpes virus in the United States.
  • Many of these people never develop symptoms.


The symptoms of herpes gladiatorum vary from person to person. The skin condition can reach any part of a person’s body and is particularly dangerous if it affects the eyes.

Symptoms tend to appear within 8 days of a person’s exposure to someone with the condition. Symptoms of herpes gladiatorum include:
  • fever
  • swollen glands
  • sore throat
  • sores or blisters on the skin, which can be painful
  • a tingling sensation in the affected area
  • headache

Blisters and sores that appear as a symptom of herpes gladiatorum can be treated and usually take 7 to 10 days to clear up.

When the virus is inactive, people carrying it will not display any symptoms and may not be contagious. However, having no symptoms is not a guarantee that they will not infect others.

How frequently flare-ups occur varies, and can be as often as once a month or as infrequent as once a year. A person is most contagious during a flare-up.


Though it is rare, there have been cases where the herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes blisters, which then become infected by bacteria. If this happens, the skin infection will need to be treated with antibiotics.

There is also a small chance a bacterial infection will spread to different parts of a person’s body, including the brain, eyes, liver, or lungs. If this occurs, it is a medical emergency, and urgent medical attention is necessary.

Causes and risk factors

Herpes gladiatorum is highly infectious and is spread from person to person through skin-on-skin contact.

Common ways that herpes gladiatorum can be passed from one person to another include kissing someone who has a herpes cold sore on their mouth, sexual contact, and sharing items, including drinks containers, utensils, or even mobile phones.

More commonly, herpes gladiatorum is spread if someone with the virus plays sports that involve them having skin-on-skin contact with others. High-contact sports, including wrestling, rugby, or basketball can cause herpes gladiatorum to spread. This element is why the condition is also known as mat herpes.

People with the virus often find that stress can cause flare-ups, as well as periods of illness where the immune system is weakened.

While some people carrying the virus can go through long periods without any flare-ups, it is important to remember that a reappearance of symptoms can occur at any time.

Seeking advice from a doctor about what precautions to take to avoid infecting others is always advisable.


A doctor can examine sores to determine whether someone is carrying the virus. The doctor will often make a diagnosis without further testing, although they may take a tissue sample from the sores to be sent for analysis.

If a person does not have sores but has other symptoms of herpes gladiatorum, it is still advisable to seek medical attention and avoid skin-on-skin contact with others. A blood test can be done to confirm whether the virus is present or not.

A blood test may also be done if a doctor is uncertain whether a person has herpes or another, similar skin condition. People with herpes gladiatorum have particular antibodies in their blood that can confirm whether someone has the condition or not.


Most symptoms of herpes gladiatorum are unpleasant but mild. Blisters should clear up within 10 days without treatment.

It is important to avoid physical contact or sharing devices, such as phones or cups until symptoms have disappeared.

Though sores should fade and do not scar, it is advisable to avoid actions that could irritate them, such as picking or rubbing them.

If symptoms are more severe and are causing pain or discomfort, a doctor may prescribe certain antiviral medications to help reduce discomfort and speed up recovery. Common medications used are:
  • acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • famciclovir (Famvir)

Medication may also be prescribed to help prevent flare-ups from occurring in the first place.


There are plenty of preventive measures that a person can take to reduce their risk of infection.

If a person is sexually involved with someone with herpes, it is advisable to avoid physical contact with them when they are having a flare-up.

Before starting a new sexual relationship, both partners should get tested for HSV-1. Some people carry the virus without realizing it.

Those who are at higher risk of infection, such as people who regularly play contact sports, should follow good hygiene practices to reduce their risk of infection or infecting others. Steps to take include:
  • showering straight after a game, coaching, or practice session
  • not sharing razors, deodorants, or towels
  • washing towels and sports kit often on a hot wash with bleach
  • making sure sports equipment is regularly cleaned
  • avoiding contact with a person who has visible sores or symptoms of the herpes virus
  • checking for sores regularly
  • covering up any open areas of skin with a bandage or dressing
  • not picking or touching sores if they occur

If a person believes they are at a high risk of infection, it might be possible to obtain a prescription of antiviral medication. Beginning a course of antiviral medication a few days before exposure to the virus can help build immunity to it and reduce the risk of becoming infected.


A person infected with herpes gladiatorum will carry the virus for life. They will have the potential to infect others whether symptoms are present or not.

Herpes gladiatorum is a manageable condition, however, and there are treatments available to help reduce and prevent symptoms.

If a person believes they are infected with the virus, seeking advice from a doctor about diagnosis, treatment, and how to reduce infection is highly advisable.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.