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.
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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.
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.