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By: RSC Editorial Team

June 4, 2023

What to Know About Herpes: The Ultimate Guide

You might think that you won’t get herpes if you don’t have sexual contact with your partner during an outbreak or that you might not give your partner herpes if you don’t have visible sores. However, you’ll learn that isn’t true and much more in this guide all about herpes.

Herpes is a common infection among men and women. Approximately 80% of Americans contract oral herpes by age 50, and 15% of Americans aged 15 to 49 contract genital herpes. In this guide covering what to know about herpes, you’ll learn about herpes virus infection causes and symptoms, getting tested for a herpes infection, treatment options, and more.

All About Herpes

There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV-1 causes cold sores and is the most common cause of oral herpes infection. HSV-2 causes more severe symptoms and is usually the cause of genital herpes infection.

There are several ways to transmit herpes, and different methods of suppressive therapy to reduce transmission.


HSV-1 and HSV-2 are two strains of the herpes virus. While HSV-1 usually presents as an oral infection, it can spread to the genitals through oral-genital contact.

The same goes for HSV-2, which often describes genital herpes. It can spread to the mouth, eyes, or other parts of the skin through contact.

How People Transmit Herpes

Most people who have herpes may not know it, as many cases of both oral and genital herpes are asymptomatic. So how does someone get herpes? An infected person might not realize they have the virus and transmit it through skin, saliva, or mucus membrane contact.

Since the HSV-1 strain of the herpes virus usually spreads through saliva, an infected person might spread HSV-1 by:

  • Sharing utensils, drinking vessels, or lip care products
  • Kissing
  • Touching the skin around the mouth
  • Oral sex

HSV-2 can spread through any genital contact, including:

  • All forms of intercourse (vaginal-vaginal, penile-vaginal, anal, etc.)
  • Oral sex with an infected person (giving or receiving, vaginal, penile, or anal)
  • Using sex toys without a condom or dental dam
  • Touching open sores at any time
  • Skin contact with the infected area
  • Birth by an infected child bearer leading to an infection of neonatal herpes

What to Do During a Herpes Outbreak

Several things can trigger an outbreak, including another infection like a cold or the flu, sun exposure, stress, or menstruation. What can you do to reduce your discomfort during an outbreak?

For oral herpes infections, you can:

  • Use a cold sore treatment like Abreva
  • Enjoy cold treats like popsicles and cold drinks
  • Use NSAID pain medications like ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce inflammation

For genital herpes, you can:

  • Keep the area clean and dry
  • Wear natural fiber underwear like cotton
  • Wear loose clothing
  • Sit in a warm bath without soap to relieve pain
  • Use NSAID pain medications like ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce inflammation

Symptoms of Herpes

For people who experience herpes symptoms, the infection can cause mild pain or much more severe symptoms and secondary infections. Herpes's effects on the body can lead to fever blisters, swollen lymph nodes, and flu-like symptoms during the initial infection. Symptoms might include:

  • Itching, burning, or pain around the genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Bumps, blisters, or sores around the genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Ulcers or scabs that form over blisters that may bleed or leak pus
  • Urethral discharge
  • Flu symptoms, such as body aches, fever, headache, and swollen lymph nodes around the genitals, anus, or mouth

The initial outbreak is often the worst. Because herpes lives in the nerve cells for the remainder of your life, you could experience recurrent outbreaks. However, recurrent outbreaks are often much less severe than the onset of your symptoms.

Male Symptoms of Herpes

Men or people assigned male at birth (AMAB) may experience a type 2 herpes infection differently from AFAB people due to differences in genital structures. Male symptoms of herpes can include:

  • Itching, burning, or painful penis, scrotum, or anus
  • Headaches
  • Visible sores that appear as white bumps or red blisters
  • Oozing ulcers or crusty scabs

Female Symptoms of Herpes

Women or people assigned female at birth (AFAB) also have slightly different type 2 herpes symptoms due to differences in genital structures. Female symptoms of herpes can include:

  • Itching, burning, or painful vagina and/or anus
  • Headaches
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Painful vagina, hips, buttocks, or legs
  • Visible sores that appear as blisters or ulcers around mucus membranes, including the vagina, mouth, anus, or urinary tract

Women may have internal outbreaks inside the vagina around the cervix that won’t be visible. Women are also more likely than men to contract herpes from a partner, as more female sex organs include a mucus membrane that the virus can pass through to enter her system.

Female patients of childbearing age should be aware that herpes is one STD that can pass to children during pregnancy, but especially during childbirth. If you have herpes and are pregnant, your healthcare provider should put you on antiviral medicine at 36 weeks to prevent an outbreak. If you have an active outbreak at the time of delivery, your doctor will recommend a C-section.

Asymptomatic Herpes

You might also have asymptomatic herpes. With how common herpes is, you should consider getting a rapid STD test.

Whether you’ve been tested before or not, you may never know you have herpes unless you get tested. Asymptomatic herpes patients may never have an outbreak and could spread herpes to multiple partners over their lifetime without a proper diagnosis.

Testing for Herpes

The only way to know for sure if you have herpes is with a test. You can get same-day STD testing from a local clinic that offers rapid testing, however, standalone herpes tests can provide a false positive. The most accurate way to diagnose herpes is with a 10-panel STD test that also tests for chlamydia, hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis.

You should learn all about herpes tests and whether to get a single-panel or a full STD screening. You’ll discover more about what to know about herpes testing when to get tested, and what to expect below, as well as what risk factors contribute to contracting herpes.

When to Get Tested for Herpes

When should someone get an STD test to check for herpes? You should consider a herpes test if:

  • You have a new sex partner
  • You cheated or suspect your partner might have cheated
  • You want to pre-screen for insurance
  • You might have had contact with herpes
  • You are sexually active with multiple partners
  • You want accurate results quickly

What to Expect from a Herpes Test

Many people have questions about testing. 

How long do herpes tests take? What kind of sample will the clinician or doctor take? What is the incubation period for herpes?

Herpes can have an incubation period for as long as 12 days before your body recognizes the invader. Tests may include swabbing an active lesion during an outbreak or taking a blood draw for an antigen test if you don’t have symptoms. You could have results in as little as a few days from either type of test, depending on whether the clinic has an in-house testing lab.

Do You Have Increased Risk Factors for Contracting Herpes?

Risk factors for contracting herpes include:

  • Being part of a high-risk group (AFAB people, Black Americans, people with same-sex sexual contact)
  • Having multiple sex partners
  • Having a sex partner with a positive herpes diagnosis
  • Not using barrier methods in safe sex practices (condoms, dental dams)
  • Having a weakened immune system


If you receive a positive result, a doctor will call to inform you of your status and teach you what to know about herpes treatment options and how to reduce the likelihood of spreading herpes.

Treatment and Prevention

Many drugs on the market today can help to reduce recurrent outbreaks and decrease the severity of symptoms during an outbreak. Your healthcare provider might prescribe you daily antiviral medicine or suppressive therapy with regular injections.

Common herpes treatments include:

  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Acyclovir
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)

These treatments can reduce your risk of spreading the infection to your partner. You should also use condoms or dental dams to further reduce your risk, as well as never engaging in sexual contact with your partner during an outbreak. Be aware that you can still spread herpes when you aren’t having an active outbreak.

Can Herpes Go Away Without Medication?

No, herpes will not go away, even with medication. Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes, only treatment to reduce outbreaks, lessen symptoms, and reduce the chance of infection. So when you wonder, “Is genital herpes very contagious?” the answer depends on whether you take the appropriate precautions.

For Fast Testing and Results, Turn to Rapid STD Testing

For more information about what to know about herpes, contact us at one of our 2,500 Rapid STD Testing test centers. We offer confidential rapid STD testing in all 50 states. Use our find a lab tool to find a clinic near you.

Ready to get started? Learn all about herpes when you get tested.

Medically Reviewed By DR. HARSHI DHINGRA,Pathologist (MD) on May 07,2024


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By: RSC Editorial Team
June 4, 2023

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