Genital herpes is transmitted when an infected part of one body touches an uninfected part of another body. This can be through different kinds of sexual contact. These include:
- having oral sex with somebody who has a cold sore
- touching genital or mouth sores and then touching another part of the body
- vaginal or anal sex.
A pregnant woman can also pass on herpes to their baby when giving birth. It’s important to remember genital herpes can be transmitted before a sore appears too. You can’t be sure somebody is outbreak-free by looking closely.
How can I tell if I have genital herpes? Does it hurt?
The first sign of genital herpes is an itchy or tingling feeling. Next, blisters will appear in small clusters on the outside or inside of your vagina, penis, anus or buttocks.
When the blisters break they turn into sores, which can be itchy and painful. The sore forms a scab, which heals itself.
The first time you have an outbreak of herpes will probably be the worst. You might feel as though you have the flu for a few weeks; and feel headachy, tired and unwell.
Most people with the infection get genital herpes more than once, but usually the first outbreak is the worst, and outbreaks after that are not as bad.
If you have genital herpes it’s important to eat well and exercise, because you’re more likely to have an outbreak if you’re stressed out, tired, in the sun a lot, or not well.
Also, girls are more likely to have an outbreak if they have their period or are pregnant.
How can I avoid getting genital herpes?
Some people may not know they have herpes and can pass it on as a result. Using condoms when you have sex will lower the risk, but it doesn’t make it completely safe.
Herpes can also affect parts of the skin not covered by condoms.
Herpes is most contagious when one person with the infection has sores, but it can be transmitted when no sores are visible. This is called ‘shedding’, and is most likely to happen in the first year after a person gets herpes for the first time.
Some points to remember
- Avoid oral sex when you or your partner has a cold sore around the mouth.
- If you or your partner has genital sores, or can feel the tingling that indicates an outbreak is coming, avoid having sex until the sores have healed.
How do I get tested for herpes?
Herpes can only be diagnosed when you have an active sore. This means going to the doctor within three days of finding a sore, because it’s difficult to diagnose once they dry up.
To find out where you can go for a sexual health check, see Think Contraception for a list of clinics in Ireland where you can talk to a sexual health nurse. Talking to the nurse is confidential and anonymous.
Is there a cure for genital herpes?
No, currently there’s no cure for the genital herpes virus, but a doctor can help you manage the symptoms and outbreaks with medication.
During an outbreak it can help to keep the area clean and dry, treat pain with aspirin, and take warm baths. It’s important to look after yourself, know the signs of an outbreak and seek treatment for the symptoms.
Will it go away if I ignore it?
Each outbreak of sores will heal by themselves eventually, but the virus will stay in your body.
If I go to a clinic will they tell my parents?
According to the law you can request and receive medical care for yourself once you’re 16-years-old. At the sexual health clinic the information you give the staff is completely confidential.
It can’t be shared with your parents or people you know, unless the law requires staff to do so.
An example of this would be if health staff thought you were at risk of serious harm. In this case the clinic is required to report this to the duty social worker from the Health Service Executive (HSE). Another example might be if your files were required in a court case.
Doctors are also required to report the number of cases of genital herpes they diagnose to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre so they can monitor the disease in Ireland. Names are not passed on.
What Is Tongue Herpes?
Herpes on the tongue comes as a result of herpes in the entire mouth.
This oral infection is caused by the herpes simplex 1 virus (HSV-1). Blisters can also appear on the inside of the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, and—most notoriously—the lips.
Herpes blisters have a distinctive appearance that make them easy for doctors to diagnose. However, blisters do not always appear. In fact, oral herpes infections can follow several different paths.
Symptoms of Oral Herpes
The severity of symptoms from the herpes virus can vary from case to case.
If you have an initial outbreak, it usually occurs within 1 to 3 weeks after contracting the virus. More often, it’s less than a week. The symptoms may last as long as three weeks.
The herpes simplex virus is the predominant cause of cold sores. Cold sores are also the most common symptom of oral herpes simplex infections. Herpes on the tongue is often accompanied by cold sores.
Some people get sores between their upper lip and nose, on the inside of their nose, down their chin and neck, or even on the inside of their throat.
In the days before blisters form, you may experience burning, itching, or pain around the infected area. You may also develop a fever, sore throat, bleeding gums, tiredness, muscle aches, or irritability. Lymph nodes and salivary glands can also swell and become painful.
These symptoms may persist until the outbreak has subsided.
About a third of those who contract oral herpes develop symptoms shortly after infection. The other two-thirds of people do not have an initial outbreak or any symptoms at all. Doctors call this asymptomatic infection.
Asymptomatic infections are possible due to the nature of herpes. There is no known cure for the virus. However, outbreaks go through cycles and yours may begin in dormancy.
Stages of Tongue Herpes
There are two different ways to look at the stages of tongue herpes.
The virus itself is said to have three stages:
1. Initial Infection:Herpes simplex enters your skin and mucous membrane and begins to reproduce. You may develop all of the symptoms or none at this stage.
2. Dormancy:Herpes spends the majority of its time in an “inactive” state. However, it migrates to the dorsal root ganglia in your spine and continues to reproduce.
3. Reactivation:The virus may reactivate when you experience certain physical, mental, or emotional stresses. For example, a cold may lead to a “cold sore” outbreak.
Some people will contract the virus at a young age and never have a single outbreak.
For those who are prone to reactivation, it’s important to understand the stages your blisters go through:
1. Prodrome (1-2 days)Some people develop a tightening, tingling, or itching sensation in the affected area a day or two before an outbreak occurs. It is common for those who experience an initial outbreak.
2. Inflammation (1-2 days)This is the first true stage of blister formation. In some cases, your immune system (or treatment) can bring the outbreak under control before blisters can form. You need treatment now.
3. Blister Formation (1-2 days)Oral herpes blisters can be red, white, clear, or grey. They are usually very tiny but form into larger clusters. An outbreak can affect one or multiple areas on your tongue or elsewhere.
4. Ulceration (1 day)The sores eventually burst and release fluid filled with HSV-1. The sores then go from red, wet, and raw sores to greyish ulcers. This stage is both highly painful and highly contagious.
5. Scabbing (3- 5 days)Soon after rupturing, a crust will grow over the wet blister that may harden into a painful scab if moisture in the mouth doesn’t prevent it. A yellowish crust may appear as well.
6. Continued Healing (3-5 days)Allow any scabs that form to heal and fall off naturally. If you allow the healing process to run its course, the scabs will fall off when new the new skin under it is ready.
Counting all of the stage, herpes outbreaks usually lasts a little under two weeks. Irritating your sores at any point in the healing process may extend that an extra week.
For those who are sure that they have oral herpes, we’ll get to proper treatment soon.
But first, let’s make sure that you actually do have oral herpes and not something else.
Do I Really Have Oral Herpes?
Although the symptoms of oral herpes are pretty straightforward, there are other conditions that can produce similar symptoms.
Herpes isn’t behind every tongue blister. For instance, blisters on the tongue are commonly canker sores.
Canker Sores Vs. Tongue Herpes
Canker sores are often confused for oral herpes infections.
Canker sores are usually the result of something irritating the inside of the mouth. This is not the same as a viral infection that produces blisters.
Canker sores often develop from acidic or spicy foods. They can also form from the highly processed sugars you find in candy. Vitamin deficiencies, hormones, and stress may also play a role.
You might even develop a canker sore simply by overusing your tongue against hard surfaces (such as your teeth).
Canker sores heal on their own once the irritant has been removed.
Oral herpes on the other hand, requires a different sort of care.