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What is Herpes?

The information provided herein does not constitute an expert or medical advice, nor intended to replace such advice.

Sexual Health
  • Medically reviewed by Dr. Andrea Pinto on 13 November 2021

Herpes is a viral sexually transmitted disease that is most commonly caused by the herpes simplex I or II virus, though there are over 100 herpes viruses that are currently known but only 8 are found in humans. 

8 herpes viruses that are commonly found in humans include: 

  • Herpes simplex 1
  • Herpes simplex virus 2
  • Varicella-zoster virus
  • Epstein-Barr virus 
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Human herpesvirus-6
  • Human herpesvirus-7
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma herpes virus

Herpes is passed through skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected with the virus. This can include kissing someone who has an active sore, receiving oral sex from someone who has an active sore, and penetrative sex. 

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Herpes simplex I (HSV-I) is a virus which causes common cold sores. HSV I is usually passed from mouth-to-mouth contact but it may can also be passed from person to person via oral sex. HSV I can cause cold sores (small fluid-filled blisters) to appear on the mouth, chin and nose. Sometimes cold sores may also appear on the cheeks. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex I in 80% of cases and herpes simplex II in 20% of causes. 

Herpes simplex II (HSV-II) is the strain of the virus which most commonly causes genital herpes. Gential herpes will present with symptoms only during “flare ups’’. Some of the common symptoms will include pain, itching, red bumps, white blisters, ulcers and scabs.  Oftentimes, genital herpes won’t present with any symptoms and for this reason, it is easy to contract or pass on the sexually transmitted infection without realising it. 

How easy is it to get herpes?

It is easy to get herpes due to the fact that it is very contagious. Herpes can be contagious even if you don’t have active sores. 

Herpes is passed easily through skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected with the virus. You can get herpes when your mouth or genitals touch the mouth or genitals of someone who is infected with the virus. 

Herpes is most commonly passed during oral, anal or vaginal sex. It may also surprise you to learn that your eyes can be affected by herpes if the eyelid or even the cornea (outer surface of the eyeball) come into contact with infected skin. 

Herpes can be passed from mother to child, though this is usually quite rare. 

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Can herpes go away?

Herpes will not go away on its own. There is no cure for herpes, however, it can be managed effectively with antiviral medications. 

Blisters that may arise during a flare up may heal themselves without the need for medications, however this does not mean that the herpes virus is no longer contagious. You will still have the herpes virus in your system. 

The good news is that antiviral medications can shorten the duration of outbreaks, and it can also make the outbreaks less severe. You can also take other medications during an outbreak, such as anti-inflammatory medications to relieve your symptoms. In some cases, blisters can become infected and you may need topical antibiotics to manage this secondary infection.

What does a herpe sore look like?

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Herpes, whether it appears on the mouth or genitals will usually look like a number of fluid-filled blisters. 

  • These blisters may appear in clusters, or you may have one single blister. 
  • The blisters can vary in size and may appear in different places. 
  • The sores can be red in colour or may look like they are filled with clear or white fluid. 
  • The sores generally scab over during the healing process which may take a week or more to heal. 

Is herpes always contagious?

Even if you are not experiencing an outbreak. Herpes always has the potential to be contagious. 

Let’s break it down into oral and genital herpes. 

Oral herpes is most contagious when you have active sores in and around the mouth, especially during the first few days of the outbreak. During oral outbreaks, you should avoid kissing and oral sex. 

Genitial herpes is highly contagious during outbreaks, even when using a condom, a sore that is uncovered during sex could be passed from person to person. During genital herpes outbreaks, you should avoid oral and penetrative sex. 

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How long is herpes contagious?

Herpes is always contagious, however the risk is lowered during dormant periods (when there are no visible sores or symptoms). 

When you are experiencing an outbreak, it is best to use antiviral treatment within the first five days of symptoms appearing. You should avoid touching the blisters to ensure that you do not spread the virus further on your own body.

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How do you get tested for herpes?

Herpes can either be detected through a swab or blood test. Read: How does a herpes test work? 

What are the symptoms of herpes? 

Oftentimes, those who have the herpes virus will not experience any symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, they may include: 

  • Pain, tingling, burning (before blisters appear).
  • Grey blistering sores with a red base (in the mouth or on the genitals).
  • Pain during urination (genital herpes).
  • Itching.
  • Flu-like (fever, tiredness, swollen lymph nodes headaches, tiredness, lack of appetite. 
  • Anal and perianal infections (MSM populations)

How do you get treated for herpes? 

There is no cure for herpes, but the virus can be effectively managed. 

Written by Hannah Kingston on May 3, 2021

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Hannah Kingston

Hannah Kingston

Mar 25, 2022

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