Herpes Simplex Virus :: Nationwide Children's Hospital

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Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a virus that causes infections. There are two types of this virus. One type usually causes cold sores around the lips that are sometimes called fever blisters. The other type usually causes sores on the genitals (private parts).  Either type can infect the mouth or genital area. Herpes can be spread even when the infected person has no sores or outward signs of infection. But it spreads most easily when infected mucous membranes or skin touch the lips or genitals of another person. That is why it is extremely important not to have sex or kiss anyone when herpes sores are present.

Picture 1 - If you have questions about herpes, be sure to ask your nurse or doctor.
Image of questions

Symptoms of Herpes

Symptoms of herpes usually begin within 2 to 20 days after contact with the HSV virus. The skin becomes painful or it may itch, burn or tingle.  Then one or more blisters appear. The blisters open and the sores (sometimes called ulcers) heal over without leaving a scar. Sometimes flu-like symptoms such as swollen glands, body aches and fever also develop. 

When the sores have healed and the skin looks normal again, the virus is no longer on the surface of the skin. However, the herpes virus lives in the nerve cells. It can cause sores on the skin in the future, even if you have no more contact with an infected person. The sores can come back at any time when you have a lot of stress, get too tired or have illness, irritated skin, sunburn or a poor diet. It can also come back during menstruation.  Sometimes the sores can come back for no reason.

How Herpes Is Treated

  • There is no cure for herpes. However, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine to help speed up the healing process.  It shortens the time when the virus can spread from the herpes sores. They can also help treat the pain that comes with outbreaks.
  • It is important to stay healthy by getting enough rest, having proper nutrition and exercise, and managing stress well.
  • Keep the infected area clean and dry.

Other Important Points

  • Protect infants from being kissed by anyone with a cold sore. Babies can get very sick from HSV.
  • See your nurse or doctor right away if you have sores and think you might have a herpes infection. A test may be done to see if the herpes virus is present. The test only works when there are sores that have not healed.
  • Avoid touching the sores or the skin around that area. If you do touch the area, wash your hands with soap and water right away. The fingers, eyes, skin and other parts of the body can become infected. 
  • Do not kiss anyone when mouth sores are present. 
  • Latex condoms can reduce the risk of spreading or getting herpes, but they may not prevent the spread of the virus. If you have sores on your mouth or genital area, do not have sexual intercourse or oral sex until the sores are completely healed. Even then, you can still give the virus to a sexual partner.
  • If you get pregnant, it is very important to tell your doctor you have herpes. That way, precautions can be taken to keep your baby from coming in contact with the virus.
  • Everyone who is sexually active needs to see a doctor or nurse practitioner regularly.

Ask your nurse, doctor or school nurse for more information. By understanding herpes, you can deal in a positive way with your concerns and fears (Picture 1).

For more information, you may call the Herpes Resource Center Hotline at (415) 328-7710, Monday through Friday, between 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Herpes Simplex Virus (PDF)

HH-I-174 6/93, Revised 3/10 Copyright 1993-2010, Nationwide Children’s Hospital

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