Learn about herpes simplex – what exactly is it?
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 genital herpes are: herpes simplex virus, type 1 or type 2. You may see them referred to as HSV-1 and HSV-2. Either types can be the cause of symptoms on the genitals (genital herpes), the face (facial cold sores), or the hand or finger (called a herpetic whitlow) depending on where they are caught. But they are rare on other parts of the body.
The information on this page refers to genital herpes whether caused by type 1 or type 2 – except where we specifically mention the different types.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Symptoms may 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 (e.g. under pubic hair, or on the shaft of the penis or scrotum, 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), 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.
Some people get recurrences – these are not like the first illness. Because the body now has developed antibodies to fight this virus, repeat outbreaks usually heal much more quickly (often in only in a few days). They are usually mild and seldom involve the flu-like symptoms.
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 symptoms of genital herpes to appear, with 4 or 5 days being most likely. Some people catch herpes but show no symptoms. Symptoms of genital herpes can appear for the first time years after you caught it. This means that herpes can turn up 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 clear symptoms when first infected. There is more in our transmission leaflet – free to members when they join.
Can I spread herpes simplex around 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 this happened, we’d see kiddies with a cold sore infecting their hands, feet, genitals and anywhere they can reach!) Some people will catch it in two places, for instance they may get it on their hands, as well as on the genitals at the same time, since hands can be involved in sexual activity. If you have caught it in more than one place, you will probably notice this during your first outbreak.
How common is herpes simplex?
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, 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 2015. A survey in 2000 found that a further 1.4 cases are diagnosed by each GP in the country – say about 53,000 cases.
What is the difference between the herpes simplex type 1 and type 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.
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 (also called herpes zoster). This causes chickenpox and shingles which are occasionally mistaken for herpes simplex. Shingles is a recurrence of chickenpox and in the elderly it may cause painful nerve damage. A study in Australia found that 3% of ‘genital sores’ were cause by chickenpox virus and not herpes simplex.
- 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.
What does herpes simplex do to you? What does herpes do to my body? I have herpes, now what?
Herpes simplex does nothing to your body or your overall health. It 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 members. You can read a sample magazine.
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