Worried you might have genital herpes? Genital herpes affects about one out of six people in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s an extremely common condition. In fact, it’s one of the world’s most common STDs. Genital herpes can be asymptomatic, meaning you may not have any visual symptoms even if you’re infected. However, there are many genital herpes symptoms that make diagnosis much easier.
Below, we’ve listed all the genital herpes symptoms and signs you should be aware of, ranging from physical symptoms to the effects a herpes infection can have on your mood and energy level. If you’re worried that you might be infected, the list below can serve as a useful resource before seeing a doctor.
What Happens After a Herpes Infection?
Most people become aware that they might have genital herpes after a first attack, which can occur during the primary infection stage.
This usually happens one to two weeks after you’re exposed to the virus through sexual activity with an infected person. This stage is known as an “incubation period,” during which the virus is actively multiplying throughout your cells.
As the herpes infection spreads, it can cause an outbreak. The first outbreak of herpes usually results in a range of physical effects, from itchy skin to flu-like symptoms. We’ve covered these genital herpes symptoms in more detail below.
Our guide to Kissing and Cold Sores goes over the eight stages of a herpes outbreak.
Signs of a First Herpes Outbreak
Most people become aware that they might have herpes during the first herpes outbreak. This period is when the physical signs of herpes become visible, causing alarm for people that may be infected.
The most obvious symptoms of a first herpes outbreak include itching around the genitals, as well as the development of blisters on and around the penis. Over the course of several days, these blisters can develop into painful, uncomfortable sores called herpes lesions.
The location of genital herpes lesions can vary from person to person. Most men notice herpes lesions on or inside the penis, as well as on the buttocks, on the thighs and groin and near the anus.
For women, genital herpes lesions usually develop inside the vagina, on the labia, on the groin and thighs, and on the buttocks and anus.
Genital herpes can also develop in other parts of the body—such as the mouth, lips and tongue—although this is uncommon and usually requires direct skin-to-skin contact between the open herpes lesions and the uninfected area. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that oral herpes isn't always triggered by an HSV-1 outbreak.
Many people experience pain while urinating during an initial herpes outbreak, a feeling that’s most often likened to a mild burning sensation. Women might also experience an inflamed cervix and unusual vaginal discharge.
Initial herpes outbreaks can also include flu-like symptoms. Many people with genital herpes notice muscle aches, fever, chills, headaches and swollen glands around the pelvic area and neck. It’s also very common to feel fatigued and worn out during the first herpes outbreak.
How Long Does an Initial Herpes Outbreak Last?
Normally, the first herpes outbreak lasts longer than subsequent outbreaks. Most people with genital herpes report the initial outbreak taking two to three weeks to completely heal, with the symptoms worsening early in the outbreak before slowly healing over several weeks.
During the healing process of a herpes outbreak, the skin lesions eventually develop into scabs and disappear from the body. There is rarely any scarring from herpes lesions—typically, once the outbreak has finished, your genital area will return to the way it normally looks.
Symptoms of Recurrent Herpes Outbreaks
Herpes can remain inactive in the body between outbreaks. In fact, many people infected with genital herpes never experience any outbreaks even through they have the virus, causing them to be unaware that they’re infected.
After an initial outbreak, genital herpes can remain dormant in your body for several months at a time. This means you might not notice any negative effects from herpes for months (or, in some cases, a year or longer) after your initial outbreak.
Most of the time, people with HSV-1 experience one to two outbreaks per year, with HSV-2 causing more frequent outbreaks (on average, four to five times per year).
The good news is that recurrent herpes outbreaks usually aren’t as bad as the first herpes outbreak. Recurrent outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe than the first outbreak. It’s also easier to treat recurrent outbreaks, since you’re more likely to be prepared.
Recurrent outbreaks tend to produce the same genital herpes symptoms as initial outbreaks—itchy skin on and around the genitals, followed by the development or herpes lesions. Just like in an initial outbreak, these lesions heal naturally over the course of days or weeks.
Herpes outbreak frequency varies greatly person to person, but our guide to what to expect from your herpes outbreaks is a good place to start.
Can Anything Trigger a Herpes Outbreak?
Since there’s no cure for herpes, the physical effects of the virus can come back from time to time on their own, often with little warning.
However, herpes can also be triggered by certain life events or behaviors. Currently, experts believe that herpes outbreaks can be triggered by factors such as fatigue and stress, illness, trauma, menstruation, trauma and sexual intercourse. However, other, seemingly arbitrary things—like sun exposure and cold weather—are thought to trigger the virus.
Over time, most people develop some level of immunity to the herpes virus, meaning that the number of outbreaks you experience every year might decrease.
Generally, people with strong immune systems experience herpes outbreaks less frequently than people with weaker or compromised immune systems. This makes it important to keep your lifestyle, diet and habits healthy to support immune function if you have herpes.
How to Treat Herpes
While herpes can’t be cured, it can be controlled using medication. The most common herpes medication, valacyclovir, can reduce the effects of a herpes outbreak and help your body heal herpes lesions quickly and effectively.
Valacyclovir is most effective when it’s used in the early stages of a herpes outbreak. For the best results and fastest healing, most doctors recommend taking valacyclovir as soon as you notice the warning signs of a herpes outbreak developing (such as itchy, irritated skin).
Our Valacyclovir 101 guide goes into more detail about how you can use valacyclovir to treat herpes outbreaks when they occur.