Herpes Exposure: How Long Before Your First Outbreak?

Herpes Exposure: How Long Before Your First Outbreak?
Mary Lucas, RN
Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 7/12/2020

Worried you may have been exposed to herpes? Herpes is an extremely common virus, with the HSV-1 and HSV-2 types of herpes affecting more than 50% and around 11% of the total world’s population respectively, according to data from the World Health Organization.

Most cases of herpes as asymptomatic, meaning people that are infected with the virus may not develop the cold sores or genital sores that most people associate with a herpes infection.

If you think you might have been exposed to herpes through kissing or sexual contact, it’s totally normal to feel concerned. Herpes spreads easily, and as it’s often impossible to tell if someone has an infection without testing, many people fret about possible infection after sexual activity.

If you have HSV-1 or HSV-2, you’ll normally experience one of two possible outcomes after you become infected:

  • A first herpes outbreak (or known as a “primary attack”). This usually happens one to two weeks after you’re exposed to the virus and can involve headache, fever and the development of herpes blisters on your lips and/or genitals.

  • Nothing. Many people infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2 have no symptoms at all, meaning you might not notice anything after being infected.

Below, we’ll explain more about the first herpes outbreak you might experience after exposure to the virus, including the typical timescale for an initial outbreak occurring. We’ll also cover the most effective testing methods that you can use to verify whether or not you have herpes.

Most Outbreaks Occur Within Two Weeks of Herpes Exposure

If you’ve been infected with herpes and are symptomatic, you’ll usually start to experience some effects of the virus within one to two weeks.

An initial herpes outbreak usually lasts for two to three weeks and involves a range of different symptoms. Many people with herpes note that the initial outbreak has the worst symptoms and that subsequent outbreaks are less severe, although this isn’t always the case.

Most people start to become aware that they might have herpes after a tingling sensation starts to develop in the area affected by the virus. For oral herpes, this is the start of the development of oral cold sores; for genital herpes, the sores develop on the genitals, thighs and buttocks.

Over the course of two to three weeks, this tingling/itching feeling leads to the development of blisters. The blisters eventually open into sores, then dry out and heal. Most herpes outbreaks do not leave any permanent scarring.

During your first herpes outbreak, you might also experience flu or cold-like symptoms. About 70% of women and 40% of men experience some level of flu-like symptoms, such as muscle pains, gland swelling, headaches and fever.

How to Check if You Have Herpes

Many people mistake herpes symptoms for a skin rash (particularly jock itch, which has some similarities) or experience such a mild outbreak that they don’t become aware they’re infected until subsequent outbreaks occur.

It’s also possible that you might experience no outbreaks at all after being infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2.

Luckily, there are several ways to check whether or not you have herpes.The best and most obvious way is to talk to your doctor about herpes testing. There are several herpes testing methods in use today, ranging from swab tests that check for viral activity to blood tests that check for the presence of IgG and/or IgM antibodies.

Each testing method has strengths and weaknesses, meaning your doctor will recommend the best option for your symptoms and potential infection type.

Most of the time, you’ll need to wait 12 to 16 weeks from the last possible exposure date before taking a herpes test. This gives your immune system time to produce a large enough amount of antibodies for an accurate test result.

What to Do if You Have Herpes

Herpes is an extremely common virus. HSV-1, the most common type of herpes, affects more than half of all people aged 50 and under. HSV-2 is less common but still affects an estimated 11% of the population, making it one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases.

While there is no herpes cure or vaccine for herpes, it’s one of the easiest viruses to manage, with a variety of highly effective medications like valacyclovir (Valtrex) available to control both oral and genital herpes outbreaks and lower your risk of infecting others.

In short, if you notice the signs and symptoms or herpes after sexual activity or see a positive result after an IgG or viral activity test, there’s no reason to panic.

Our Valacyclovir 101 guide goes into more detail about how you can treat and manage herpes using safe, affordable medication while enjoying a normal sexual and social life.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.