A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.
When we say, “herpes” many of us are thinking about genital herpes, famously known as an incurable inconvenience. But there is more to it than being just a sexually transmitted infection. There are multiple ways that herpes can transmit but genital herpes is usually picked up from sexual contact. Apart from that, herpes can be transmitted when sharing an environment with someone who has the infection as well.
When a herpes outbreak occurs, you can expect cold sores to take about 10–14 days to heal on average. During this time period, the virus is considered to be active, and you should be very careful to avoid direct contact between a sore and someone else. If after trying the natural remedies for herpes described above you still experience frequent recurrences, talk to your doctor for how to get rid of herpes symptoms. Sometimes immunity is suppressed due to another infection or virus, or even as a side effect of taking some medications, so be sure to rule these causes out.
Particularly when someone is on suppressive antiviral medication and practicing safer sex, risk of transmission can be greatly reduced. Cullins suggests female condoms (condoms that go inside the vagina and cover most of the vulva, though it's important to note that not all people with vaginas are female) to provide the most protection against transmission, though condoms that go over the penis will protect what they cover.
Some people experience very mild genital herpes symptoms or no symptoms at all. Frequently, people infected with the virus don't even know they have it. However, when it causes symptoms, it can be described as extremely painful. This is especially true for the first outbreak, which is often the worst. Outbreaks are described as aches or pains in or around the genital area or burning, pain, or difficulty urinating. Some people experience discharge from the vagina or penis.
In fact, “atypical symptoms” are the reason that so many people don’t know they have herpes. Their reality is nothing like the scary images that pop up when you Google image search the term. Atypical symptoms include things like nerve pain, achy muscles, itching, and tingling. Some women I talked to reported being misdiagnosed with frequent yeast infections or bacterial infections before receiving their herpes diagnosis. “With your first episode, you can have fever, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms,” says Cullins.
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Diagnosing herpes is made much easier if you present to your clinician at the time that the rash is present and if possible, we can take a sample from that to be sent for Herpes PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) studies to confirm the diagnosis. Advanced medical investigative techniques such as this will allow us to differentiate type one from type two herpes regardless of the nature and distribution of the rash.
Herpes virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the cause of cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. Usually, the sores or blisters can show up on the outside of the mouth or on the lips. But sometimes, they can be inside the mouth, on the face, nose, cheeks or fingers. HSV-1 can also lead to infection of the genitals, called genital herpes. This occurs when you have a cold sore and perform oral sex on another person. HSV-1 infections are highly contagious. Apart from oral-genital contact, they can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. If you come into contact with a person or a thing that carries HSV-1, you will be likely to get it, too. Often, people get HSV-1 from kissing someone with a cold sore or when they share eating utensils, razors, or towels.
Transmission of HSV-1 occurs by direct exposure to saliva or droplets formed in the breath of infected individuals. In addition, skin contact with the lesions on an infected individual can spread the disease to another individual. Although close personal contact is usually required for transmission of the virus, it is possible to transmit HSV-1 when people share toothbrushes, drinking glasses, or eating utensils.
Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, or have symptoms but do not recognize them as a sign of infection. Genital herpes symptoms include blisters, sharp pain or burning feelings if urine flows over sores, an inability to urinate if severe swelling of sores blocks the urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the vagina), itching, open sores, and pain in the infected area.

The broader issue is whether, if you do get infected, herpes will ultimately harm your health. Although I don’t want to trivialize this infection, in your general scheme of health, it probably will not. The major concern is that if you are pregnant and develop a new outbreak of herpes, the virus can be transmitted to the fetus, especially during vaginal delivery. What’s more, people with genital herpes have a much greater risk of acquiring HIV if they are exposed. (It’s theorized that the lesion causes microscopic breaks in the skin, allowing HIV to enter the body.)


“You don’t want an infant delivered through infected birth canal or vulva because the infant can be infected,” Cullins explains. A neonatal herpes infection is a real risk because it can cause problems with brain development and eye and skin infections, or even be fatal. And since there is more risk for transmission from mother to baby during an initial outbreak than during a recurrent outbreak, the CDC stresses that it’s incredibly important for pregnant women to avoid contracting a new herpes infection.
Patients with genital herpes have reported that outbreaks or episodes typically diminish through the years. Early prodromal symptoms, or warning signals, that are followed by outbreaks. These prodromal symptoms often include mild tingling or shooting pains in the legs, hips and buttocks, and can last from 2 hours to 2 days. After the prodromal symptoms occur the blisters develop into painful red spots, which then evolve into yellowish, clear fluid-filled blisters after a day or two. These blisters burst or break and leave ulcers that usually heal in about 10 days. In women, blisters can develop inside the vagina and cause painful urination.
STI and sexual health expert Michael Asher (who is also CEO at Better2know, the company behind the STI testing for E4's The Sex Clinic) explains what we all should know about oral herpes. He says, "With 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 being infected with HSV1, it is incredibly common and just a single exposure to the virus can lead to infection."
According to Cullins, there are no standardized guidelines from the CDC for suppressive therapy through medication, but it is an option that people with HSV should talk to their healthcare providers about. “If a person knows they have had herpes in the past that has affected their genitals, they can take suppressive therapy — for example, 500 mg of valacyclovir daily.” While it won’t prevent outbreaks, it will prevent asymptomatic virus shedding. Preventing exposure to the virus through both medication and a physical barrier can be very effective.
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