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What is herpes?

Genital and oral herpes are caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV). The virus comes in two strains (types) and causes small, painful sores on the genitals (HSV-2) or on or around the mouth (HSV-1). Even though one type is more common on the genitals (HSV-2) and one is more common on or around the mouth (HSV-1), both types of herpes can be spread from genitals to genitals, mouth to mouth, mouth to genitals and genitals to mouth.

A person can be infected with herpes and not have any symptoms. Or they may have mild symptoms that are mistaken for something else. When someone does have symptoms, they typically begin as blisters that then become sores, which are usually oozing and painful. These sores can appear anywhere around the mouth in the form of cold sores or fever blisters, or on the genitals or anus. During the first “outbreak” of sores, the sores typically dry up and heal in about two weeks. Later on, outbreaks are generally shorter and milder. A person may feel a tingling sensation around the area of the skin right before sores appear and may have a low-grade fever.

A person is most contagious when the sores are visible, but the virus can also spread from the skin even when there are no visible sores on the mouth or genitals. Someone who experiences an outbreak of cold sores should not have oral sex, kiss or share drinking glasses or lip balm during the outbreak to prevent transmitting the virus to someone else. Condoms and other safer sex methods can be somewhat effective during a herpes outbreak, but may not cover the area of skin where sores are (or were) present. There are also over-the-counter and prescription medications to reduce the length and severity of an outbreak.

Because it is possible to transmit herpes from the mouth to the genitals or the genitals to the mouth, using a condom or dental dam for oral sex is important. Herpes is also the only STD that can be transmitted through kissing, though it is far easier to pass oral herpes when one kissing partner has an outbreak than when one doesn’t.

The herpes virus stays in a person’s body their whole life, and outbreaks of sores can happen throughout life. Sometimes after a while, a person will get fewer outbreaks than they used to or will stop getting outbreaks, but the virus is still in the person’s body and can still be passed to another person. It is also important to remember that some people don’t experience any symptoms or sores yet they are still infected. There’s no cure for herpes, but there are medicines that can reduce the pain, control the number of outbreaks, shorten the length of outbreaks and lower the risk of passing herpes to a sexual partner. A doctor or other health care provider can prescribe the medicine.

For more information on herpes testing, treatment and support, visit the American Sexual Health Association’s website or visit I Wanna Know.

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