Herpes is a common infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types, called herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2).
Generally, oral herpes (cold sores) are caused by HSV-1, while genital herpes are caused by HSV-2. But HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, and HSV-2 can cause cold sores.
It’s really impossible to tell whether an outbreak is caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2 just by looking at it. Meanwhile, herpes sores may not be immediately recognized when they first appear. Or, they can be mistaken for other infections like mouth sores or shingles.
This article describes the symptoms of herpes and how and where this common viral infection can lead to outbreaks. It also explains how to treat herpes and lists various conditions that look similar to oral or genital herpes.
where herpes can occur on the body
Painful blisters are a classic sign of a herpes infection. The rash may itch, numb, tingle, or burn for a few days.
A typical herpes outbreak usually involves one or more blisters that start as small red bumps. They then rapidly develop into fluid-filled blisters that sometimes coalesce into larger blisters.
Herpes blisters usually erupt, leaving painful sores with raised edges. The sores ooze and crust over. Severe breakouts can cause scarring.
Oral and genital herpes usually develops in the following ways:
- Oral herpes is usually caused by HSV-1. It causes blisters, sometimes called heat sores or cold sores, on or around the lips and mouth. Sometimes blisters form elsewhere on the face or tongue. The sores usually last two to three weeks with each outbreak.
- Genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2. Sores usually occur on the penis, around or inside the vagina, or on the buttocks or anus. Sores can also form on other areas of the skin. The first outbreak can last from two to six weeks. Subsequent outbreaks tend to be less severe and shorter in duration.
However, not all cases of oral herpes involve HSV-1, and not every case of genital herpes involves HSV-2. This is because the virus is highly contagious.
For example, if you touch genital herpes and then touch your mouth, you could get oral herpes. If you have oral herpes pain and perform oral sex on someone, that person may have genital herpes.
That’s why it’s important to avoid sexual contact during a herpes outbreak. If you have a cold sore, avoid oral sex with your partner or touching the sore. If you come into contact with a sore, wash your hands immediately with soap and water.
Oral herpes is usually caused by HSV-1. Genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2. But oral herpes can spread to the genitals, and genital herpes can spread to the mouth through oral sex or hand contact with open sores.
What does a herpes rash look like?
In addition to the rash, oral herpes may be accompanied by:
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
In addition to the rash, genital herpes can also cause:
- Muscle pain
- swollen lymph nodes in the groin
- difficulty urinating
- Painful urination
When you have herpes, the virus stays in your body and doesn’t go away.
Different things can trigger outbreaks, including emotional stress, acute illness, fever, trauma, surgery, sun exposure, and menstrual periods. Some outbreaks have no known cause.
Fatigue, headache, and swollen lymph nodes are among the symptoms that accompany a herpes outbreak. With genital herpes, there may also be pain or difficulty urinating.
Identifying Herpes: Signs and Symptoms to Look Out for
How to Treat Herpes
There is no cure for herpes, but there are some antiviral medications that can reduce the duration or severity of an outbreak. Antiviral drugs are drugs used to treat viral infections. Usually, antiviral treatment is most effective when started at the first signs of an outbreak.
Treatment may vary depending on the location of the sore and other factors:
- Oral herpes can be treated with Zovirax (acyclovir), Famvir (famciclovir), or Valtrex (valacyclovir). Antiviral drugs are taken orally. The course of treatment can vary from one to seven days.
- Genital herpes can also be treated with Zovirax, Famvir, or Valtrex. In addition to tablets, acyclovir can be given by injection or as an ointment on sores. Famvir and Valtrex are taken by mouth. The course of treatment varies depending on whether it is the first outbreak or a subsequent outbreak.
You can help ease a genital herpes outbreak by sitting in a warm bath. Applying cold compresses to the rash for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day may also help.
Avoid spicy or acidic foods when you have cold sores. You can also use an over-the-counter (OTC) local anesthetic such as lidocaine to numb the pain; be sure to wash your hands immediately afterwards.
Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) can also help relieve the pain of oral and genital herpes.
The duration and severity of herpes outbreaks can be reduced with antiviral medications. Antiviral medications are most effective when started at the first signs of an outbreak. Other treatments, such as cold compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers, can help relieve pain.
a condition that looks like herpes
Not all rashes that look like herpes are herpes. There are other infections that can cause a painful blister (or blister-like) rash. These include:
- aphthous stomatitis: Also known as mouth ulcers
- Dermatitis herpetiformis: A severe itchy, blistering rash that affects people with celiac disease
- el panjina: A viral disease caused by the coxsackie virus that causes mouth sores
- gladiator herpes: A herpes virus commonly found in athletes, spread by skin-to-skin contact
- Shingles: Also called shingles
- Syphilis: a sexually transmitted disease that usually causes painless sores on the genitals or anus
Other infections that can mimic herpes include aphthous stomatitis (mouth sores), dermatitis herpetiformis, angina herpetiformis, gladiatorial herpes, herpes zoster (shingles), and syphilis.
Herpes is an outbreak of painful blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus. Oral herpes is usually caused by herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), while genital herpes is usually caused by herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Even so, HSV-1 can sometimes cause genital herpes, and HSV-2 can sometimes cause oral herpes.
Herpes can be treated with antiviral drugs. They don’t cure herpes, but if started early, they may reduce the severity or duration of an outbreak.
Other herpes-like infections include mouth sores, shingles, syphilis, dermatitis herpetiformis, angina herpetiformis, and gladiatorial herpes.
If you think you are experiencing a herpes outbreak, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible for treatment if needed. This is especially important if your immune system is compromised. Avoid touching the rash or exposing others to the sore.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does a herpes outbreak last?
A person’s first herpes outbreak is usually the longest, lasting one to two weeks. They are usually shorter and less severe if subsequent outbreaks occur. There are some prescription medications designed to shorten the duration of a herpes outbreak.
Does herpes itch?
Yes. A common symptom of herpes is itchy, inflamed, or painful skin. Most people who experience a herpes infection either experience no symptoms or at most a mild rash.
What causes a herpes outbreak?
Herpes outbreaks can happen at any time, but triggers can include emotional stress, illness, trauma, fever, surgery, sun exposure, and menstrual periods. Identifying which stressors trigger a herpes outbreak can help prevent future outbreaks.
Can you get herpes on your hands?
Yes. When herpes infects the hands, it can cause leukoplakia on the fingers, causing the following symptoms:
- swelling and pain in the fingers
- sores or blisters on fingers
- Irritated skin turns red and darker than normal skin tone