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How To Identify Symptoms Of Herpes

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Sep 25, 2018
Last Modified Date: Sep 25, 2018
Published Date: Aug 01, 2017

Herpes Can Happen to Anyone: Can You Identify the Symptoms?

Herpes simplex is a very common contagious viral infection. It most often affects the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth or genital area, but the painful sores that characterize the disease can occur anywhere on the body. It is caused by one or both of two forms of the herpes simplex virus, herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Herpes simplex is a chronic condition for which there is no cure. However, with appropriate diagnosis and treatment, the disease can be controlled, minimizing the severity, duration and frequency of outbreaks.

Herpes Simplex

Herpes simplex viruses are transmitted through close contact with an infected individual. Risk of transmission is highest during an outbreak, but the infection can also be spread when no visible herpes symptoms are present. The viruses that cause the disease are carried in bodily fluids, such as saliva, semen, vaginal secretions, and fluid from a herpes sore. They enter the body through the skin or mucous membranes, typically those in the mouth or genitals.

It was once thought that herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) was not sexually transmitted and was the primary cause of oral herpes infections, while herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) was responsible for most genital infections. That premise, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, has been discredited. In recent years, it has been discovered that both forms of the herpes virus can be transmitted sexually, either or both can be indicated in oral or genital herpes infections, and in developing countries, HSV-1 is responsible for up to half of all new cases of genital herpes.

Once HSV-1 or HSV-2 has made its way into the body, it invades cells in the lower layers of the skin and begins to reproduce. As it multiplies, it can cause inflammation and sores. Then, viral particles invade nerve endings in the affected area, where they will linger, inactive until triggered to replicate again at unpredictable intervals throughout an infected individual's lifetime. During these active periods, often referred to as the shedding phase, the virus enters bodily fluids and can be transmitted. While visible outbreaks of herpes sores may occur during shedding, one third to one half of the time, there are no visible herpes symptoms.

About Genital Herpes Symptoms

Genital herpes symptoms vary widely in intensity, with some suffering severe symptoms and others displaying no signs of the disease at all. Additionally, the initial outbreak – the first appearance of herpes sores after infection with the virus – tends to be more severe and longer in duration than recurrent ones, and symptoms of herpes can also differ to some extent between men and women.

What are the Symptoms of Herpes in Men?

Symptoms of genital herpes in men are often very mild, if any symptoms occur at all. According to the CDC, approximately one of every five men has genital herpes, and about four of every five who do, or 81.1 percent, have not been diagnosed and are likely unaware of the disease. In men that do experience symptoms, the most common include:

  • Irritation, itching, burning or tingling on or around the mouth, face, penis, scrotum, thighs or buttocks
  • Development of herpes lesions in the areas cited above
  • Burning or pain with urination
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes, which can occur in the neck or groin
  • Headaches
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches, especially in the lower back or groin area

What are the Common Symptoms of Herpes in Women?

Women are more likely than men to show severe symptoms of herpes infection. Common herpes symptoms in women include:
  • Herpes lesions, typically developing in clusters, on the vulva, labia, clitoris, inside the vagina, anus, buttocks or thighs, often proceeded by itching, tingling or pain in the infected area
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck or groin
  • Nausea and/or decreased appetite
  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Menstrual cycle changes

Diagnosis and Treatment

Individuals experiencing any of these symptoms should avoid seek testing immediately. Several diagnostic tests can be used to detect the presence of herpes infection. If herpes lesions are present, fluid from those lesions will typically be swabbed and tested for the presence of HSV 1 or 2. DNA testing of blood or tissue samples can be done to detect the virus or determine the specific type or types present, or blood tests can be performed to detect antibodies to HSV in the bloodstream.

While herpes is an incurable disease, it can be treated with antiviral medications. Antiviral creams or ointments can be used to alleviate the pain, itching and discomfort of herpes lesions, and oral antiviral medications can be used to shorten or even suppress recurrent herpes outbreaks and can decrease the risk of the virus being transmitted to others.

Some of the media in this article come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #15561.