Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections are acquired from direct contact with someone who carries the virus. The infectious secretions that pass on HSV-1 or HSV-2 live on oral, genital or anal mucosal surfaces. They’re passed through skin-to-skin transmission, and any form of direct contact with sores on the mouth, buttocks or genitals can cause the virus to be passed.
Your healthcare provider may diagnose genital herpes by simply looking at your symptoms. Providers can also take a sample from the sore(s) and test it. In certain situations, a blood test may be used to look for herpes antibodies. Have an honest and open talk with your health care provider and ask whether you should be tested for herpes or other STDs.
According to Gina*, 21, “A herpes diagnosis is very shaking and it gives you the opportunity to look inward and really find what you love about yourself.” Gina says she has even better self-esteem than prior to finding out she had HSV. She explains, “You learn not to lower your standards, because you start to pick out who it is worth disclosing to and who isn't.”
Pain, sore lips, burning sensation, tingling, or itching occurs at the infection site before the sores appear. These are the early symptoms (prodrome). Sometimes these symptoms happen prior to the appearance of sores, bumps, pimple-like lesions, or blisters (herpes or herpetic stomatitis). Thereafter, clusters or groups of painful blisters (also termed fever blisters) or vesicles erupt or ooze with a clear to yellowish fluid that may develop into a yellowish crust. These blisters break down rapidly and appear as tiny, shallow gray ulcers on a red base. Fever blisters are smaller than canker sores. A few days later, they become crusted or scabbed and appear drier and more yellow.
Since genital herpes affects the private parts, people tend to think that the virus acts differently on men and women. However, the symptoms of genital herpes are very similar in males and females. The most important difference is that the virus can cause complications in pregnant women, who can pass the infection on to their babies. Other than that, there is no such thing as a male or female genital herpes virus, the infection is caused by the same virus in both sexes.
Primary orofacial herpes is readily identified by examination of persons with no previous history of lesions and contact with an individual with known HSV infection. The appearance and distribution of sores is typically presents as multiple, round, superficial oral ulcers, accompanied by acute gingivitis. Adults with atypical presentation are more difficult to diagnose. Prodromal symptoms that occur before the appearance of herpetic lesions help differentiate HSV symptoms from the similar symptoms of other disorders, such as allergic stomatitis. When lesions do not appear inside the mouth, primary orofacial herpes is sometimes mistaken for impetigo, a bacterial infection. Common mouth ulcers (aphthous ulcer) also resemble intraoral herpes, but do not present a vesicular stage.
Herpes infection of the genital tract is a sexually transmitted infection (sexually transmitted disease or STD). Like in the mouth area, herpes symptoms and signs include a painful, blistering rash around or on the genital or rectal areas. These lesions open and result in painful sores that can take two to four weeks to heal. The sores can sometimes cause painful urination. Recurrent outbreaks are typical, and the time between outbreaks varies among affected people and even within the same individual. Prior to an outbreak, a tingling, burning, or itching sensation may be present on the area of involved skin.
The most common reason that people develop cold sores on their mouths is due to becoming infected with HSV-1. (4) HSV-1 usually causes cold sore breakouts around the lips or mouth, or what some people describe as “fever blisters.” Someone can become infected with HSV-1 starting as a child, and then the virus can lay dormant in the body until the immune system is weakened, at which point symptoms can surface.
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.