Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that can be passed from any type of sexual contact.
HSV-1, also known as oral herpes, can also be passed via non-sexual contact, such as sharing eating utensils or drinks.
If you think you have been exposed, you may wonder how long it could take for an infection to appear.
Some people who get herpes simplex never show signs or symptoms.
For those who do, symptoms may appear as soon as a few days to a few weeks after exposure.
In this article, I’ll outline the symptoms of genital and oral herpes, and talk about their transmission and diagnosis.
I’ll also explain how long it takes for herpes to incubate and appear, list some precautions and preventive steps you can take.
Around half of all American adults under age 50 have a version of herpes simplex.
The virus may go dormant after an initial infection, or may never cause symptoms at all.
Other people may deal with recurrent HSV outbreaks.
It is not always possible to tell whether you have HSV-1 or HSV-2 based on symptoms alone, as the symptoms can overlap.
HSV-1 vs HSV-2 Symptoms
While most people generally refer to herpes, there are two viruses: HSV-1 (oral herpes) and HSV-2 (genital herpes). Both strains can cause sores in either the mouth or the genital area.
Symptoms of an initial outbreak or a reactivated virus are similar between HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Both viruses may lead to painful sores or blisters that form in or around the mouth, nose, chin, cheeks, eyes, genitals, anus, and inner thighs.
HSV-1 most commonly causes cold sores around the mouth or on the face, while HSV-2 most commonly causes sores around the genitals, anus, or thighs.
Worldwide, 67% of the population under age 50 has HSV-1, while just 13% of the world’s population in the same age group have HSV-2.
Additionally, both viruses may also cause:
- Tingling, itching, burning, or numbness 1-3 days before sore outbreaks
- Body aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Both viruses can also show no symptoms at all, even when someone is contagious.
How long does it take for symptoms to appear?
After a first exposure, it can take 2-12 days after exposure to herpes simplex virus for symptoms to appear.
Herpes Average Incubation Period
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 cause painful sores and blisters that present in five stages:
- Stage 1: About 1-2 days before the cold sore or blister appears, tingling, itching, burning, or numbing sensation starts where the outbreak will occur.
- Stage 2: One or more painful sores appear, typically around the mouth or the genitals.
- Stage 3: Several days later, the sores burst, which allows the fluid inside to escape. This fluid can easily transmit the virus to others—this is a highly contagious time.
- Stage 4: A crust forms, covering the sores as they dry out.
- Stage 5: A scab forms over the crust, and eventually flakes off once the sore is fully healed.
From start to finish, a herpes simplex sore outbreak typically lasts 1-2 weeks.
How soon can you test for herpes?
Your doctor will likely suggest waiting until at least 12 days after exposure before testing.
If you get tested for herpes too soon after exposure, you may get a false negative result.
It takes time for the body to produce antibodies in response to a viral infection.
Herpes Tests & Diagnosis
Depending on where you are in the stage of exposure or infection, your medical provider may perform an examination or run tests to provide an accurate diagnosis.
- Physical examination: If you have active sores, your doctor may examine them to determine if they appear like HSV-1 or HSV-2 sores.
- Fluid sample: If you have active sores, your medical provider may swab a sore and send the fluid to the laboratory for testing, which can confirm that it is caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2.
- Blood tests: If you do not have any active sores or other specific physical signs of herpes simplex, your doctor can order blood tests to identify viral antibodies to confirm a diagnosis.
If you are diagnosed with HSV-1 or HSV-2, your doctor may be able to prescribe antiviral medication to shorten an active outbreak or help alleviate symptoms.
They may also recommend over-the-counter antiviral creams or other products to provide pain relief.
Some medications, when taken orally or applied topically, can prevent outbreaks if used at the first sign of a sore, such as the initial feelings of tingling that precede the formation of a sore.
How is Herpes Transmitted?
Herpes simplex is highly contagious. It is primarily transmitted via contact with an infected person, either with saliva or through direct contact with fluids from herpes sores.
Herpes may be transmitted either through sexual contact or non-sexual contact. HSV-1 is much more common than HSV-2.
It is not possible to get herpes from:
- Holding hands or hugging
- Coughing or sneezing
- Toilet seats
Herpes simplex viruses may be spread by:
- Kissing (either from a parent to child, or between sexual partners)
- Oral sex
- Less commonly, shared objects that touch the sores or saliva of someone with an active outbreak (razors, lipstick, cosmetic products, etc.)
In some cases, while not as common, herpes simplex can be passed from a pregnant person to their baby during birth.
Both types of herpes simplex can be asymptomatic. A person with no symptoms may still be able to spread the virus via saliva or other body fluids if it is actively shedding.
Viral infections never leave the body.
They may go dormant, during which time a person is not contagious.
Herpes simplex virus does not always reactivate, but is contagious from someone experiencing an outbreak, whether it is their first or one of many.
Most people are contagious a few days before sores appear and until the sores are fully crusted over and no longer producing liquid.
Precautions and Prevention of Herpes
It is not possible to prevent all exposure to herpes simplex.
The virus is common, and is not always transmitted via sexual contact.
Many people who have HSV-1 do not even know they were exposed. It is possible to get exposed in childhood and never have active outbreaks.
It is possible to practice safe sexual hygiene and prevent the transmission of genital herpes.
You can minimize this risk by:
- Avoiding sexual contact, kissing, or any type of contact with active sores from someone who is having a current outbreak
- Using condoms and dental dams during all types of sexual contact
- Not sharing utensils and cosmetics with someone who has an active herpes outbreak
When to See a Doctor
If you develop sores around your mouth or genitals and you have never had a known herpes simplex outbreak before, see your healthcare provider.
They can perform a physical examination and run other necessary tests to determine the cause.
Some other types of sexually transmitted infections may also cause sores, as well as other types of viruses, and your doctor will want to ensure that you get the right treatment.
In most cases, herpes simplex does not require medical treatment.
Most outbreaks clear on their own in 1-2 weeks.
Prescription or over-the-counter medication may be able to shorten the duration of an outbreak or alleviate pain associated with sores.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Herpes simplex virus. (2022).
Herpes simplex. (2016).
Genital herpes — CDC Fact Sheet. (2021).
Prevalence of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 in Persons Aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016. (2018).