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What You Need to Know About Herpes

what is herpes

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  • A type of sexually transmitted infection (STI), herpes is a chronic condition that’s caused by the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus
  • Herpes can be transmitted from one person to another via unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex
  • Your genitals or mouth are usually affected by herpes, but the infection can also spread to other body parts such as your eyes

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex viruses HSV-1 and HSV-2.1 It’s a chronic condition that enters the moist surfaces of your skin, and can easily spread to your mouth, anus, genitals or eyes.2

The herpes virus tends to remain dormant in your body for some time after you’re infected with it. However, as Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center emphasizes, “At some point the virus wakes up and travels along nerve pathways to the surface of the skin where it begins to multiply again.”

During this time, your body is highly contagious and you may transmit the infection to other people. You then experience what’s known as a herpes outbreak,3 which may last for two to four weeks.4

After this initial outbreak, it’s not known when you’ll be affected again.5 However, you can expect as many as four to five outbreaks yearly after your first herpes infection.6 Usually, subsequent outbreaks aren’t as severe as the initial one.7

Does Herpes Target Specific Body Parts?

The body parts most affected by herpes are the genitals, mouth and thighs.8 The HSV-1 virus triggers oral herpes that causes symptoms on or around your lips or mouth,9 while the HSV-2 virus causes genital herpes10 that affects the areas on or near your genitals.11

You may begin noticing symptoms two to 12 days after being infected with the virus.12 Some of the hallmarks of the early stages of herpes include a tingling feeling on your genitals, thighs or buttocks. You can also spot small red bumps that can turn into painful sores. Eventually, they may open, dry out, scab over and heal quickly.13 Flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes and headache may also manifest if you have herpes.14

Is Herpes Contagious?

There are two known types of herpes, namely oral herpes and genital herpes, and they’re contagious. In some cases, both HSV-1 or HSV-2 viruses can be shed from normal-looking skin and trigger any of the mentioned types of herpes.15

Genital herpes, which is mainly caused by the HSV-2 virus, is transmitted via unprotected vaginal or anal sex, sharing infected sex toys, having oral sex with someone who has cold sores or touching the genitals of an infected person.16

Touching an infected person’s lesions and coming into contact with mucosal surfaces or genital or oral secretions containing the virus are other ways that genital herpes can be spread.17 However, touching a surface or washbasin,18 or sharing a towel with someone who has genital herpes will not cause you to acquire the virus.19

Oral herpes may arise if you come into contact with herpes sores,20 especially during sexual intercourse.21 However, kissing someone infected with oral herpes, even if no intercourse occurred, may also pass on the infection. As such, it’s possible for someone to be infected with oral herpes during their childhood.22


Herpes: Introduction

What Is Herpes?

Herpes Types

Herpes Causes

Herpes Stages

Herpes Symptoms

Herpes Prevention

Herpes Diagnosis

Herpes Treatment

Living With Herpes

Herpes FAQ

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Herpes Types

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