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What does herpes look like?

Herpes sores can affect many areas of the body, including the mouth, genitals, and eyes. Knowing what herpes looks like across the body can help people diagnose the condition.

Herpes is a skin condition caused by the herpes simplex virus. The symptoms include sores that come and go over time. Different types of herpes affect different body parts.

This article will explain what herpes is, how people get it, and what herpes looks like with pictures.

What is herpes?

Doctor showing patient the appearance of herpes with pictures on tablet device
The appearance of herpes will differ depending on the area of the body it affects.

Herpes is a mild condition that causes small sores to appear on the skin.

People develop herpes after being exposed to the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of this virus:

  • herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), or oral herpes, which usually affects the mouth
  • herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2), or genital herpes, which generally affects the genitals

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 67 percent of people under 50 years old have the HSV-1 virus, and 11 percent of 15 to 49 year-olds have the HSV-2 infection worldwide.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can occur on the face or the genitals. People can contract both herpes viruses through bodily fluids, including genital fluids and saliva.

Once someone has the virus, the symptoms can flare up from time to time for the rest of their life. While the sores can be uncomfortable and even painful, they are not usually dangerous for otherwise healthy adults.


What does herpes look like?

Most people with HSV are asymptomatic, meaning they will not experience any symptoms. Others will notice sores or lesions. These sores look like blisters filled with fluid. Over a few days, the sores break open, ooze, and form a crust before healing.

People may also notice a tingling, itching, or burning feeling a few days before the sores appear. Some people may also experience flu-like symptoms, such as:

Someone who has contracted the virus will usually have their first sores, or an outbreak, between 2 and 20 days later. The sores may last up to a week or 10 days.

An outbreak may involve a single sore or a cluster of sores. They often affect the skin around the mouth, the genitals, or the rectum. The blisters can take between 2 and 4 weeks to heal.

The symptoms will usually reappear from time to time, though they do not tend to be as severe as the first time.

The following sections discuss the symptoms of herpes that arise on commonly affected body parts.

Pictures


Mouth

In oral herpes, most blisters appear on the lips or mouth. They can also form elsewhere on the face, especially around the chin and below the nose, or on the tongue.

At first, the sores look similar to small bumps or pimples before developing into pus-filled blisters. These may be red, yellow or white. Once they burst, a clear or yellow liquid will run out, before the blister develops a yellow crust and heals.

People with oral herpes may experience swollen lymph nodes in the neck during an outbreak.

Female genitals

Females with genital herpes may develop sores on the vulva, which is the external part of the genitals that includes the outer lips (labia), or inside the vagina. It may be difficult to see sores that develop inside the vagina.

Genital sores vary in size and number, but as with oral herpes, they look like pimples or blisters filled with fluid. They will burst and develop a yellowy crust as they heal.

Females are more likely to have trouble urinating during a genital herpes outbreak than men. They may experience a burning sensation while passing urine. They may also notice they have swollen lymph nodes in their groin.

Male genitals

Males with genital herpes may develop sores on and around the penis.

Small red or white pimples develop into larger, fluid-filled sores that may be red, white or yellow. As with oral herpes and female genital herpes, these sores tend to burst before crusting over.

Along with other flu-like symptoms, men may experience swollen lymph nodes in their groin.


Rectum

Both men and women with genital herpes may develop sores or blisters on the buttocks or around the rectum.

A person may notice open, red wounds on or around the anus.

Herpes sores may also appear around the rectum, and a person may also develop swollen lymph nodes in the groin.

Fingers

Child sucking their thumb
Children who suck their thumb may develop herpetic whitlow.

Herpes blisters can also develop on the fingers. This is called herpetic whitlow and is most common in children who suck their thumb.

Herpes can cause one or more sores to develop around the fingernail. A person will often experience pain or a tingling sensation in the area before the sore develops.

If multiple sores appear, they tend to join up and become one large, honeycomb-like blister within a week. They may also spread to the nail bed.

Eyes

Herpes keratitis refers to a herpes infection in the eye. It may affect one or both eyes and causes:

  • eye pain
  • sensitivity to light
  • discharge from the eye

Anyone who suspects herpes keratitis should see a doctor. Without treatment, the infection can scar the eye, leading to cloudy vision, or even vision loss.


Summary

Herpes is a mild skin condition caused by the herpes simplex virus. It causes blister-like sores to appear anywhere on the body. The most commonly affected areas include around the mouth, the genitals, and buttocks.

There is no cure for HSV, and people who have contracted the virus will usually experience breakouts from time to time. The sores usually clear up on their own, though people can help treat outbreaks using antiviral medicine, such as:

  • acyclovir
  • famciclovir
  • valacyclovir

These treatments, which are available as creams or pills from drug stores or on prescription, can shorten the duration of a herpes outbreak.

To avoid transmitting herpes to other people, avoid skin-to-skin contact during flare-ups of symptoms, especially when the sores are open.

When a person has genital herpes, they can reduce the risk of transmitting the virus by using a condom between outbreaks. People with oral herpes can reduce the risk of transmission by avoiding kissing, sharing tableware, or performing oral sex during an outbreak.

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