Straight to the Facts: Herpes

  • Caused by contact with an infected person

  • HSV1 causes cold sores around the mouth

  • HSV2 causes sores on and around the genitals

  • Sores can be very painful

  • Most people find out they have herpes when they have an outbreak

  • Once you have the virus, it stays in your body for the rest of your life

  • No cure is available, but there are treatments that can make outbreaks less frequent and less painful

Herpes is a viral STI caused by two viruses: herpes simplex virus-1, or HSV-1, and herpes simplex virus-2, or HSV-2. HSV-2 is most commonly associated with genital herpes while HSV-1 is most commonly associated with oral herpes, also called cold sores. ​It is a common STI with more than 1 in 6 people between the ages of 14 to 49 being infected. But, most people have no symptoms and don't even know they have it. People who have HSV-1 usually get it as children by kissing relatives or any contact where saliva may be exchanged. Many people with HSV-1 don't even have symptoms.


Because herpes infections can cause open sores in the mouth, vagina, anus, and on the penis, it can increase your risk of getting HIV if you have sex with someone with HIV. Even if you don't have open sores, herpes can still increase your risk of HIV.

How do I know I have it?


Most people who have herpes have no, or very mild symptoms and most people who have herpes do not know it. You may not notice mild symptoms or you may mistake them for another skin condition, such as a pimple or ingrown hair. Genital herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take weeks to heal. This is sometimes called an "outbreak.” The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands. Repeat outbreaks of genital herpes are common, especially during the first year after infection. Repeat outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe than the first outbreak. Although the infection can stay in the body for the rest of your life, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years. You should be examined by your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms or if your partner has symptoms. 


How can I get it?


You can get herpes by having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who has the disease.  Fluids found in a herpes sore carry the virus, and contact with those fluids can cause infection. You can also get herpes from an infected sex partner who does not have a visible sore or who may not know he or she is infected. The virus can be released through your skin and spreads the infection to your sex partner(s).


How can I get treated?


There is no cure for herpes. However, there are medications that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. One herpes medication can be taken daily and makes it less likely that you will pass the infection on to your sex partner(s). 


What happens if I do not get treated?


Genital herpes can cause painful genital sores and can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems. If you touch your sores or the fluids from the sores, you can transfer herpes to another part of your body, such as your eyes. Do not touch the sores or fluids to avoid spreading herpes to another part of your body. If you touch the sores or fluids, immediately wash your hands thoroughly.


Some people who get genital herpes have concerns about how it will impact their overall health, sex life, and relationships. It is best for you to talk to a healthcare provider about those concerns, but it also is important to recognize that while herpes is not curable, it can be managed. Since a genital herpes diagnosis may affect how you will feel about current or future sexual relationships, it is important to understand how to talk to sexual partners about STDs.


What if I am pregnant?


If you are pregnant and got herpes in the second half of your pregnancy, the risk of spreading the infection to your baby is high, about 30-50%. If this happens, it can mean that there will be serious birth complications including birth defects, early birth, and low birth weight. Pregnant women should avoid having sex with new partners and partners they suspect might have herpes in the second half of their pregnancy to avoid complications.


If you are pregnant and got herpes early in your pregnancy or before you got pregnant, the risk of spreading the infection to your baby is very low, about 1%. To reduce the risk, the CDC recommends that pregnant women continue taking a herpes medication during their pregnancy and avoid exposure to new strains of herpes.

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