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.
However, asymptomatic carriers of the HSV-2 virus are still contagious. In many infections, the first symptom people will have of their own infections is the horizontal transmission to a sexual partner or the vertical transmission of neonatal herpes to a newborn at term. Since most asymptomatic individuals are unaware of their infection, they are considered at high risk for spreading HSV.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a possibility of a herpetic flare up taking a sinister turn and leading to herpetic encephalitis. It is estimated to affect at least 1 in 500,000 individuals per year. The mechanism of this is not fully understood, but it is believed that the infection occurs through direct transmission of the virus via nerves from other parts of the body to the brain. In such cases, a person may complain of fever, headache, and lethargy, followed by confusion or delirium. In some cases, some people even develop seizures. This requires immediate medical attention and treatment.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.