About HSV

HSV-1 and HSV-2

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) causes genital herpes and cold sores around the mouth. Oral herpes can cause genital herpes or can be caused by genital herpes because the virus may be transmitted from the mouth to the genital area or vice versa during oral sex. Basically, outbreaks occur where the virus entered the body. HSV-1 typically causes cold sores and HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes.

How do people get infected?

HSV is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD), however since it is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact it can be contracted through other forms of intimate contact. Male-to-female transmission is more likely than female-to-male transmission, which is why more women are infected by the virus than men. Condoms lower the risk of infection, but they may not fully protect against the virus. This is because the infected area may extend beyond the areas protected by a condom.

It’s important for you to know that the virus can be contracted:

  •  during protected sex with a condom
  • during unprotected sex
  • during vaginal, anal, or oral sex
  • even if no symptoms are present
  • even if the infected person is taking medicine that suppresses outbreaks

Pools, hot tubs, and toilet seats are sometimes blamed as the cause of a person’s infection even though research shows the virus cannot live outside of the body for more than a few seconds.

How soon do symptoms occur?

Many people who have the Herpes virus do not know they have it because they are symptom-free and have not been tested for it. Some people who have the virus think they no longer have it after the outbreaks stop occurring. These individuals may unknowingly infect others with the virus and deny doing so because they don’t have symptoms.

Most individuals do not have or have only minor symptoms. Some people do not experience symptoms until many months after initially being infected with the virus, but it is still possible for them to infect someone during that time. It is more common, however, for individuals to experience symptoms within 2 weeks of contracting the virus.

Every person is affected differently by these viruses. Some have frequent outbreaks on a regular basis, but some may only have an outbreak once every few months or years. Others will be infected by the virus, but never experience an outbreak. Typically outbreaks decrease in frequency and/or stop occurring at some point in time.

Genital Herpes (HSV) Symptoms

During a person’s first outbreak of genital herpes, symptoms can be quite pronounced and the person may experience flu-like symptoms, including fever and swollen glands. There are typically one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum, however they may also develop on other areas of the body, including the butt and back. The blisters break, leaving tender ulcers (sores) that may take two to four weeks to heal the first time they occur.

Subsequent outbreaks are almost always less severe and shorter than the first outbreak, and may look like small red bumps instead of sores. Minor outbreaks are sometimes mistaken for razor burn, ingrown hairs, or insect bites. The person can expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks (symptomatic recurrences) within a year. Over time these recurrences usually decrease in frequency.

HSV Testing

Most “complete” STD screenings do not test for HSV. You must specify that you want to be tested for HSV when you get tested. We recommend that you ask your physician for a copy of your STD test results so you can see which STDs you were tested for.

For HSV testing, it’s important for you to know that:

  • a swab test can be performed only when lesions or sores are present; if the swab test is performed when sores are almost healed, the results may not be accurate
  • a blood test can be performed, however it may take months for HSV antibodies to appear in the blood, so if the test is done too early, the results may not be accurate
  • false negatives are extremely common in both swab and blood tests, which often causes individuals to think they are safe and accidentally infect others with the virus
  • a person might test positive one time and test negative another time, causing them to think they are no longer or never were infected


National STD Hotlines

1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)

ASHA STI Resource Center (919) 361-8488