If you have recently made it through a first episode that consisted of full-blown symptoms, you know something about signs and symptoms already. The good news is that the first episode is almost always the worst that HSV throws your way. Signs and symptoms of recurrent episodes (when they occur) tend to be milder and heal much more quickly, typically within two to twelve days.
Cullins explains that even if you’ve never had an outbreak, if you’ve been exposed to herpes, it lies dormant in your body. A blood test could reveal antibodies for HSV-1 and/or HSV-2, which means that you have been exposed to the infection in your past, you have been infected, and you have developed antibodies because your body has or is fighting the infection.
Oral herpes, commonly referred to as mouth herpes, is a viral infection of the mouth and gums primarily by the Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) but may also be due to the genital variant (HSV-2). It is also known as recurrent herpetic stomatitis or acute herpetic gingivostomatitis. The infection of the mouth typically causes small fluid-filled blisters known as vesicles on the roof of the mouth (palate), inside of the cheeks (buccal muscosa), tongue, gums and even the lips (herpes labialis). It may also occur on the skin around the mouth and extend to the nose and into the nasal cavity.
HSV-2 is commonly referred to as genital herpes because it usually causes cold sores to erupt around the genitalia. In fact, genital herpes is the No. 1 cause of genital ulcers worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and affects up to 1 in 3 adults (although most who are infected don’t even know it). (5) Both types of herpes viruses are highly contagious, and both can cause cold sores in either area of the body (or sometimes both).
Herpes infection of the genital tract is a sexually transmitted infection (sexually transmitted disease or STD). Like in the mouth area, herpes symptoms and signs include a painful, blistering rash around or on the genital or rectal areas. These lesions open and result in painful sores that can take two to four weeks to heal. The sores can sometimes cause painful urination. Recurrent outbreaks are typical, and the time between outbreaks varies among affected people and even within the same individual. Prior to an outbreak, a tingling, burning, or itching sensation may be present on the area of involved skin.
Although it’s not caused by either the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus, herpes zoster falls under the umbrella of herpes diseases. Also known as shingles, it’s an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, and is characterized by the development of painful skin rashes on one side of the face or body.23 These rashes are red patches of fluid-filled blisters that tend to crack easily.24,25
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
Although the cause is unknown, outbreaks are often associated with periods of weakened immune systems, skin wounds, menstruation, fever, nerve damage, tissue damage from surgery, or exposure to extreme climate situations. A genital herpes outbreak or episode occurs when the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus is reactivated from its dormant stage. Genital herpes is an incurable disease, and once you contract it, you may experience outbreaks throughout your lifetime. Those who are experiencing their first herpes episode of genital herpes can expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks within a year. Over time these recurrences usually decrease in frequency and severity. The first outbreak of herpes is often the longest outbreak experienced. After that, short and inconsistent episodes can be managed and treated with antiviral medication.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 30% of pregnant women in the United States have genital HSV. During pregnancy, people are immunocompromised so that their body doesn’t fight the fetus as a foreign invader. And when a person’s immune system is weakened, they are more likely to have herpes outbreaks. According to Cullins, “Pregnancy is the time period when [a provider] really wants to know whether or not the person has had herpes in the past,” so they can protect the pregnant person and their infant from a herpes infection.
A person may show symptoms within days after contracting genital herpes, or it may take weeks, months, or years. Some people may have a severe outbreak within days after contracting the virus while others may have a first outbreak so mild that they do not notice it. Because of these possibilities, it can be difficult for people to know when and from whom they may have contracted the virus.