Most people have a general idea about what herpes is. However, it’s easy to access false information, whether it’s from friends or pop culture. In fact, many people are confused by exactly what herpes is and who is at risk of contracting it.*
What Is Herpes?
So, what exactly is herpes? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than what pop culture might have you think. Herpes can refer to two types of viruses: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2).
What Is HSV-1?
HSV-1 is the type that most commonly causes cold sores or fever blisters. How can you get this strain? Usually people get it through direct oral contact, such as kissing or sharing eating utensils. However, it can be spread to the genital during oral sex.
What Is HSV-2?
HSV-2 causes genital herpes in most cases. This is the strain most people think about when they talk about herpes. How do you get it? Usually people get genital herpes through sexual contact with someone who already has it. HSV-2 can also less commonly cause oral herpes.
How Common Is Herpes?
The truth is, almost everyone has had at least one type of herpes in their lifetime. HSV-1 is the virus that most commonly causes cold sores. Genital herpes is also incredibly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 out of 6 adults in the United States have it (for those between 14 and 49 years of age).
How Is Genital Herpes Spread?
There are a lot of myths about sexually transmitted infections (STDs) like genital herpes. A common one is that you can only get them by having lots of unprotected sex with multiple partners. That simply isn’t true! It only takes one encounter with someone who has herpes to contract the virus.
While less common, it is also possible for someone with a cold sore to spread the infection to their partner’s genitals via oral sex. So, if you have a cold sore, you should use a condom or dental dam until the outbreak clears up. You may also wish to abstain from sex completely until the outbreak ends.
Why should I take extra precautions during an outbreak?
An outbreak greatly increases your chances of passing genital herpes on to someone else. However, it is still possible to pass the virus on even when the infection is dormant.
What Are Some Risk Factors for Getting Herpes?
Our FREE STD Risk Calculator discusses common risk factors experts associate with a higher risk of getting an STD.
How Can I Reduce My Chances of Getting Herpes?
Make sure you know the health status of any intimate partner. After all, you cannot get herpes from someone who does not have it. (But remember: no noticeable symptoms does not necessarily mean a clean bill of health.) Using condoms correctly and taking anti-viral medications can also greatly reduce–but will not entirely eliminate–the chances of infection.
There is currently no available vaccine for herpes. There are, however, a few vaccines in development.
How Do I Use a Condom Correctly?
Below is a simple step-by-step diagram for how to use a male condom.
- Check beforehand that the condom is not expired. Be careful as you remove the condom to avoid tearing or otherwise damaging it. Check for tears or other signs of damage.
- When placing the condom on the penis head, hold the tip.
- When rolling down, do so carefully and go all the way down the penis.
- Have safe, consensual sex.
- Note that when pulling out, you must hold the condom at the base. This will keep it in place as you pull out.
- Dispose of the used condom. Do not reuse a condom for any reason, even if it is with the same sexual partner.
Using condoms consistently and correctly can greatly reduce your chances of getting herpes and other STDs. However, even correctly used condoms will not always protect against STDs. Say, for example, the STD is spread through a sore, like genital herpes or syphilis. It’s possible for a sore to be outside the condom’s protective barrier. In this case, the condom isn’t providing protection against contact with the sore.
For more information on using a male condom correctly, you can visit the CDC and talk with a health care professional.
What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?
What is common for both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are outbreaks of blisters and painful sores. How do you know when a genital herpes outbreak has happened? What shows first are usually small red bumps. Blisters can then appear before breaking. The result? Painful sores. Fortunately, these sores should not cause permanent scarring.
These outbreaks alternate between active and dormant periods. Active or outbreak periods are what the name implies: periods when outbreak symptoms are present. Dormant periods are when you experience no symptoms but still have the virus. Cold sores typically happen around the mouth. Genital herpes affects the genitals and anus, as the name implies.
Note that this is not a complete list of symptoms, and symptoms vary by individual. Many people are asymptomatic, or show no symptoms. If symptoms occur, they may be mild enough that the afflicted person mistakes them for something else. In other words, you can have herpes even if you or your partner has never noticed an outbreak.
What Is a Genital Herpes Outbreak Like?
Everyone’s experience during an outbreak is different. For some, the pain may be mild. For others, it may be more intense. Generally, though, the first outbreaks are the most painful as well as the most frequent. With time, outbreaks tend to be less painful and less frequent. Outbreaks after the first are called recurrent outbreaks.
How Long Do Genital Herpes Outbreaks Last?
The first outbreak can last 2-4 weeks. Later ones generally take about a week to heal. Someone can have multiple outbreaks a year.
What Triggers a Herpes Outbreak?
You can’t always control outbreaks. But there are some factors that can greatly increase your chances of experiencing one. These include factors that weaken your immune system, such as illness, sleep deprivation, AIDS, and chemotherapy. Other factors include stress, menstruation, and certain medications. Living a healthy lifestyle and taking certain medications can help reduce outbreaks.
Outbreak Triggers (Partial List)
- Sleep deprivation
- Certain medications
Is there a Herpes Cure?
There is currently no cure for herpes. There is some good news, though. Even though there is no cure, there are options for managing the symptoms.
What Does Herpes Look Like?
Below are images of herpes infections of the mouth, vagina, and penis. These images are graphic and may be disturbing to some people. Do not attempt to diagnose any symptoms you have based on the following images.**
What Does Herpes Look Like on the Mouth?
What Does Herpes Look Like on the Vagina?
What Does Herpes Look Like on the Penis?
How Can I Test for Herpes. . .
. . . with a Sample from a Sore?
An easy way for a professional to diagnose herpes begins visually, through the presence of an outbreak. The patient describes her symptoms to a doctor and undergoes a physical exam. To confirm the visual diagnosis, a doctor will take a sample from an open sore. It will then be examined for the presence of the herpes simplex virus.
There are limits to this testing method. The largest one is that you cannot take a culture from a sore if a sore isn’t present.
. . . with a Blood Sample?
Another testing method is for a doctor to perform a blood test.
What Is the Herpes Blood Test?
A blood test is one way to test for genital herpes. The best part about the blood test is that it can be used whether or not a person is experiencing symptoms. One drawback is that it can take time for herpes simplex antibodies to show up in the blood (up to several weeks after exposure). It also can’t tell a person how recently he was exposed.
How Much Is a Herpes Test?
Although some insurance plans cover STD testing, many people prefer to pay for testing out of pocket. The price will depend on the clinic and whether you are doing multiple tests at once. It is not uncommon to pay a minimum of $50 for just a herpes test.
If you are sexually active, you need to take a responsible approach to sexual health. That can include talking with your doctor to decide which STD test(s) is/are right for you.***
Where Can I Find a Herpes Testing Clinic?
You can find an STD testing facility here.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (Last reviewed 2017). Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (Last reviewed 2016). Male Condom Use. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/male-condom-use.html
National Institutes of Health (2018). Herpes Can Happen to Anyone: Share Facts, Not Fears. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH News in Health. Retrieved from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/06/herpes-can-happen-anyone
National Institutes of Health (2010). Herpes in Hiding: Genital Herpes Often Unrecognized. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH News in Health. Retrieved from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2010/11/herpes-hiding
*This article should not act as a substitute for professional medical information or advice; this article and this site’s resources are not sources of professional health care information or recommendations.
**STDTestingFacilities does not imply that the author(s) of the images used on this page endorse(s) this site. Images are used for illustrative purposes only; they should not be used as diagnostic tools.
***Note that the CDC does not recommend herpes testing for everyone. For more information on why this is (and other information about herpes screening), go here.