What the heck is it anyway?

Herpes is a very common infection, caused by two different (but related) viruses; Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Usually, HSV 1 causes symptoms like cold sores and HSV 2 causes genital herpes – BUT both types of herpes can cause symptoms in both places. Confused? Both HSV 1 and HSV 2 are lifelong infections, spread really easily, and they are really common – but HSV 2 is the one most people think of when they hear “herpes.”

About half of all people in the U.S. have HSV-1. It can be spread by sharing drinks, kissing, or through sexual contact like oral sex. Because it’s so easy to spread, lots of people contract HSV-1 when they’re young from something that’s definitely not sex, like kissing grandma or sharing a milkshake. Still, you can get it from a partner if you don’t have it – especially if they have an open cold sore.

HSV-2 is the one most people think of when they hear “herpes”; it causes most genital herpes symptoms. About 20% of people in the U.S. have genital herpes. Just like HSV-1, it can be spread through sexual contact, including kissing and touching. It can also spread from mother to baby during childbirth.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 stay in your body for the rest of your life, and symptoms can come and go. It’s most likely to spread when one partner has active symptoms like an open mouth or genital sore – but those aren’t always easy to spot. Treatment from a doctor can help keep symptoms in check.

Since genital herpes doesn’t usually show symptoms, testing is key. Signs and symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, so they’re often confused with other diseases. For some people, herpes lesions (also known as sores, vesicles or ulcers) can look just like insect bites, scratches, a yeast infection, or “jock itch”.

Genital herpes symptoms might include:

  • Blisters
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Open sores
  • Fever
  • Itching in the affected area
  • Problems with or pain while urinating


When a person has oral herpes, small “cold sores” or “fever blisters” can show up on the lips, around the mouth or in the mouth. The sores are annoying, but they’re not usually harmful.

To prevent contracting genital herpes, use condoms (external or internal) correctly every time you have sex. If you have herpes, you can pass it to your partner even if you don’t show symptoms. There’s no cure for herpes, but your doctor can help you find medication to help make outbreaks less intense, and help reduce the likelihood of spreading it to your partner. Don’t touch herpes sores on yourself or your partner, and abstain from sex if you or your partner is experiencing an outbreak.

In North Carolina, you have the right to get confidential STI tests and treatment without a parent’s permission. Want to get tested, but not sure where to start? Use this nifty search tool to find a testing site near you.

Since herpes is difficult to diagnose on symptoms alone, it’s super important to get tested. Only your doctor can tell you for sure if you have it. Doctors will run a series of tests (usually a physical exam, lab tests and blood tests) to determine whether you’re infected. If you have herpes, it’s especially important to use condoms and know your partner’s status; your risk for contracting HIV nearly doubles if you have herpes.