Some people experience very mild genital herpes symptoms or no symptoms at all. Frequently, people infected with the virus don't even know they have it. However, when it causes symptoms, it can be described as extremely painful. This is especially true for the first outbreak, which is often the worst. Outbreaks are described as aches or pains in or around the genital area or burning, pain, or difficulty urinating. Some people experience discharge from the vagina or penis.
Oral herpes (HSV-1) infection (or exposure without noticeable infection) is common. About 65% of the U.S. population has detectable antibodies to HSV-1 by age 40. This article will focus on HSV-1, or oral herpes, not on HSV-2, also commonly known as genital herpes. Genital herpes is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In addition, HSV-2 virus should not be confused with human papillomavirus (HPV), the cause of genital warts, and some cervical and other cancer types.
With the first outbreak of herpes virus infection, an individual may also experience nonspecific flu-like symptoms like fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and muscle aches. It is also possible to have herpes virus infection without having any symptoms or signs, or having signs and symptoms that are so mild that the infection is mistaken for another condition.
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.