The “classic” symptoms that most people associate with genital herpes are sores, vesicles, or ulcers – all of which can also be called “lesions.” (The scientific literature on herpes uses the term “lesion” to describe any break or irregularity in the skin.) These classic lesions of genital herpes often resemble small pimples or blisters that eventually crust over and finally scab like a small cut. These lesions may take anywhere from two to four weeks to heal fully.
There’s quite a variety, in short. And while genital herpes certainly can and does cause these signs of infection literally on the genitals (the penis or the vulva) it also can produce signs of infection nearby. Herpes sores on or between the buttocks are common (and sometimes slow to heal), as are lesions on the thigh. Herpes can bring about what feels like a tiny fissure around the anus, something easily confused with hemorrhoids. So remember: recurring signs and symptoms in the genital or anal area could well be herpes lesions.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections are acquired from direct contact with someone who carries the virus. The infectious secretions that pass on HSV-1 or HSV-2 live on oral, genital or anal mucosal surfaces. They’re passed through skin-to-skin transmission, and any form of direct contact with sores on the mouth, buttocks or genitals can cause the virus to be passed.
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Once a person is infected, there are no symptoms for anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks. This is known as the incubation period and is the time during which the virus multiplies profusely. The first symptoms that are seen are the small fluid-filled blisters known as vesicles. This arises as the virus starts destroying cells at the site and causes intense localized inflammation. These small vesicles or sometimes the larger bullae may either burst resulting in ulcer or heal completely with no scarring. The virus may also travel from the site of infection and “hides” by the sensory dorsal root. Here it remains latent until is it is reactivated.
Prodrome: Early in the phase of reactivation (also called an outbreak), many people experience an itching, tingling, or painful feeling in the area where their recurrent lesions will develop. This sort of warning symptom – called a “prodrome” – often comes a day or two before lesions appear. To be on the safe side, it’s best to assume virus is active (and, therefore, can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact) during these times.
Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes. See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body. How do you know if you have herpes? Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.
Oral herpes is also known commonly as cold sores and fever blisters but is different entity from oral canker sores although canker sores may sometimes be associated with HSV infection. Canker sores occur solely inside the mouth. Oral herpes occurs inside and around the mouth. Most of the time HSV-1 causes mouth symptoms and in a minority of cases it may also be responsible for genital symptoms. The opposite is true for HSV-2 – it causes genital symptoms in the majority of cases while only a few cases of HSV-2 infection will result in mouth symptoms. HSV-1 infection may be seen in all ages, including children, but when genital herpes is seen in children, sexual abuse needs to be a consideration.
The risk of transmission from mother to baby is highest if the mother becomes infected around the time of delivery (30% to 60%), since insufficient time will have occurred for the generation and transfer of protective maternal antibodies before the birth of the child. In contrast, the risk falls to 3% if the infection is recurrent, and is 1–3% if the woman is seropositive for both HSV-1 and HSV-2, and is less than 1% if no lesions are visible. Women seropositive for only one type of HSV are only half as likely to transmit HSV as infected seronegative mothers. To prevent neonatal infections, seronegative women are recommended to avoid unprotected oral-genital contact with an HSV-1-seropositive partner and conventional sex with a partner having a genital infection during the last trimester of pregnancy. Mothers infected with HSV are advised to avoid procedures that would cause trauma to the infant during birth (e.g. fetal scalp electrodes, forceps, and vacuum extractors) and, should lesions be present, to elect caesarean section to reduce exposure of the child to infected secretions in the birth canal. The use of antiviral treatments, such as aciclovir, given from the 36th week of pregnancy, limits HSV recurrence and shedding during childbirth, thereby reducing the need for caesarean section.
Herpes, whether on the mouth or genitals, is caused by a family of over 70 related viruses. These viral infections cause small, fluid-filled blisters to develop on the skin and mucous membranes. There are actually eight different types of herpes simplex viruses that both children and adults can acquire, but two are by far the most common: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Herpes is contracted through direct contact with an active lesion or body fluid of an infected person. Herpes transmission occurs between discordant partners; a person with a history of infection (HSV seropositive) can pass the virus to an HSV seronegative person. Herpes simplex virus 2 is typically contracted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, but can also be contracted by exposure to infected saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or the fluid from herpetic blisters. To infect a new individual, HSV travels through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Even microscopic abrasions on mucous membranes are sufficient to allow viral entry.
Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.
Recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes may happen, with some patients having four to six outbreaks in the span of a year. Compared to the first infection, subsequent recurrences are less painful and occur in shorter periods than the first infection. There are some patients, however, who don’t have another outbreak for many years or even once more during their lifetime.11
Not every person with a herpes infection actually experiences breakouts of cold sores throughout his or her lifetime or even after initially becoming infected. How often someone has a herpes cold sore outbreak, how severe the outbreaks are, how contagious someone is after infection and how long the sores take to heal all depend on someone’s individual immune response.
Human herpes virus 6 (HHV6) is a recently observed agent found in the blood cells of a few patients with a variety of diseases. It causes roseola (a viral disease causing high fever and a skin rash in small children) and a variety of other illnesses associated with fever in that age group. This infection accounts for many of the cases of convulsions associated with fever in infancy (febrile seizures).
However, there is much more to the herpes virus than just chicken pox or genital herpes. For instance, after an active infection, the virus is shed (eliminated) in the urine and feces for up to several months (sometimes years in the case of the cytomegalovirus) after the active infection has resolved. This means the infected person is still contagious, which is what makes this virus so contagious. It can easily be transferred when the patient is asymptomatic.
Some people have recurrent outbreaks with the so-called “classic” blister-like herpes lesions that crust over, or with painful sores. In recurrent herpes, however, this process usually takes about half the time it does in first episodes. In addition, many people have very subtle forms of recurrent herpes that heal up in a matter of days. And lastly, herpes is capable of reactivating without producing any visible lesions (asymptomatic reactivation).
It should not be confused with conditions caused by other viruses in the herpesviridae family such as herpes zoster, which is caused by varicella zoster virus. The differential diagnosis includes hand, foot and mouth disease due to similar lesions on the skin. Lymphangioma circumscriptum and dermatitis herpetiformis may also have a similar appearance.
Herpes simplex viruses -- more commonly known as herpes -- are categorized into two types: herpes type 1 (HSV-1, or oral herpes) and herpes type 2 (HSV-2, or genital herpes). Most commonly, herpes type 1 causes sores around the mouth and lips (sometimes called fever blisters or cold sores). HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but most cases of genital herpes are caused by herpes type 2. In HSV-2, the infected person may have sores around the genitals or rectum. Although HSV-2 sores may occur in other locations, these sores usually are found below the waist.
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
Doctors prescribe suppressive treatment if a person experiences more than six recurrences in a year. In some cases, a doctor my recommend that the individual takes daily antiviral treatment indefinitely. The aim here is to prevent further recurrences. Although suppressive treatment significantly reduces the risk of passing HSV to a partner, there is still a risk.