What is herpes? What is herpes simplex? What is genital herpes?
Herpes simplex is the name given to two viruses in a family of herpes viruses. All of them, once caught, remain in the body. The two viruses that cause the symptoms we call ‘herpes’ are: herpes simplex virus type 1 or type 2. You may see them referred to as HSV-1 and HSV-2. Either type can be the cause of symptoms on the genitals, the face (facial cold sores), or the hand or finger (called a herpetic whitlow) depending on which area of skin you catch them on. They are rare on other parts of the body.
The information on this page refers to genital herpes whether it is caused by type 1 or type 2 – except where we specifically mention the different types. We have another page which will give you information about cold sores (herpes simplex on the face).
What does herpes simplex do to you? What will herpes do to my body? I have herpes, now what?
Herpes will do nothing to your body or your overall health. Herpes simplex causes spots, which admittedly can be painful, and if they come often then they are very annoying… “I have herpes, now what?” Well, if it were on your face, you would not be asking that question.
You can make a big deal of it, there are websites that suggest you have to. However, the HVA experience is that people can get over it and move on to live happily ever after. Each issue of Sphere magazine tells a ‘personal story’ from one of our readers. You can read a sample magazine.
Depending on what you have read, you may feel many painful emotions about having herpes. And according to their circumstances, people can feel betrayal or anger – as well as sorrow. Remember that the virus is not causing these emotions, it is the negative stories that you have read that are triggering them. Most people live normal lives after diagnosis. They are not the ones writing on forums. You can phone our helpline to talk through the feelings/worries that you have. All helpliners are people with the virus and trained to have the answers to factual questions.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Not everyone will notice when they catch it. When three people catch herpes, only one of them will get symptoms of genital herpes. The other two get nothing, or little symptoms such as ‘a cut’ ‘a pimple’ ‘an itchy place’ ‘an infected hair follicle’…
If you do get symptoms of genital herpes, then the first infection can start with itching, tingling, soreness and discomfort in the area affected. There can also be general flu-like symptoms with backache, headache, temperature, aching and mild swelling of the lymph glands in the groin, armpits and neck.
On ordinary skin (such as: under pubic hair, or on the shaft of the penis or scrotum, on the outer labia, on the fingers, hands or other parts of the body), you are likely to get blisters, spots or red bumps which may be quite painful. These burst and form sores, raw spots or ulcers which will crust over and new skin will form as they heal.
On mucous membrane, (e.g. under the foreskin for men and on the inner side of vaginal lips for women, and on the mouth), the virus causes ulcers which heal directly into new skin.
You will not normally have any scarring, although the new skin may be paler for a while. This first episode may last from 2 to 3 weeks.
It will appear on the area of your skin that has been in contact with the affected area of the other person.
The first infection will be the worst. If you do get recurrences they will be shorter and milder This is because when you first catch it, you only have ‘all purpose’ antibodies to fight it. When the virus tries to recur, you now have specific herpes simplex antibodies to help control it.
Some people get recurrences – these are not like the first illness. Because the body now has developed antibodies to fight this virus, repeat symptoms usually heal much more quickly – often in only in a few days. They are usually mild and seldom involve the flu-like symptoms.
A few people get frequent recurrences, this is more likely when they have caught type 2. If you are one of these people, we suggest you look at antiviral treatment and self-help suggestions. Type 1 does not ‘like’ the genital region and therefore if it the cause of genital infection, it rarely recurs there (an average of every 15 months in the first year).
How long will it take for herpes simplex symptoms to appear?
It usually takes two to fourteen days after contact with the infected area for the first herpes simplex symptoms to appear. Four or five days being most likely.
However, many people catch herpes but show no symptoms. Symptoms of genital herpes can appear for the first time many years after it was first caught. It means that herpes appear unexpectedly during a long-term faithful relationship. This is why genital herpes is not proof of infidelity. About two out of three people get no obvious symptoms when they first catch it. There is more in our transmission leaflet – free to subscribers when they join.
Can I spread herpes simplex around my own body? Can I transfer herpes to a new place on my body?
It is extremely unlikely that you will reinfect yourself with herpes virus on other parts of your own body after the first episode. (Not even your eyes.) You will not spread it when applying topical ointments. Even during this first outbreak, the infection is usually limited to one part of the body. (If you could infect yourself elsewhere, we’d see children with cold sores infecting their hands, feet, genitals and anywhere they can reach!)
Some people will catch it in two places on the same occasion, for instance they may get it on their hands, as well as on the genitals, since hands can be involved in sexual activity. If you have caught it in more than one place, you will notice this during the first infection. It won’t cause symptoms in one place and not in the other. However, recurrences are usually on only one of the places you caught it, not on both at the same time.
How common is herpes simplex?
Herpes simplex is very common. By age 25, about six out of ten people in the UK carry type 1 and about one in ten carries type 2, more in the sexually active population. If this surprises you, it is because most people who have it don’t know that they do. This is because they have no symptoms or because they get it so mildly, they do not notice. Most facial cold sores are caused by type 1. Herpes simplex on the genitals may be type 1 or type 2.
Each year the number of new people diagnosed by STI services is recorded by Public Health England. It is over 33,000 – see the data STIs 2020. (The number of people diagnosed in 2020 went down due to COVID-related clinic closures.) A survey in 2000 found that a further 1.4 cases are diagnosed each year by each GP in the country – say a possible 53,000 cases.
What is the difference between herpes simplex type 1 and herpes simplex type 2?
There is only a small difference between herpes simplex type 1 and 2. They are genetically slightly different but cause similar symptoms. Either can be caught anywhere on the body.
- Type 1 is more likely to reappear when it is caught on the face and is less likely to recur when it is caught on the genitals.
- Type 2 is more likely to recur when it has been caught on the genitals. It almost never reappears when it has been caught on the face.
There is no difference in the visible symptoms caused by the two types, so it is only possible to establish which type you have caught through a laboratory test. Both viruses are called herpes simplex virus. On this page, we are referring to genital infection caused by type 1 and type 2 – except where we specifically mention the different types.
What are the other herpes viruses?
- Varicella-zoster virus is one of the other herpes viruses. (Its medical name is humanherpes virus 3.) This causes chickenpox (herpes varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster). Shingles is a recurrence of chickenpox and in the elderly it may cause painful nerve damage. Shingles can occasionally be mistaken for herpes simplex. A study in Australia found that 3% of new ‘genital sores’ were cause by chickenpox virus and not herpes simplex virus.
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and Epstein Barr virus, also called glandular fever. These viruses do not cause spots or blisters like herpes simplex. They may cause flu-like illnesses.
- And four others: humanherpes viruses 6, 6a, 7 and 8.
More questions and answers
- Getting diagnosed with genital herpes
- Passing on/transmitting herpes
- Herpes recurrences explained
- Treating genital herpes
- Genital herpes, pregnancy and childbirth
- Other herpes questions
Tell us what you think of this website
Would you like to help us?
This page updated 25-10-2023