​​How Long Does a Herpes Outbreak Last?

By Frank DiVincenzo, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 17, 2022

The herpes virus family include many types of infections, including HSV-1 and HSV-2, which may be sexually transmitted.

The viruses that cause different types of herpes are similar, but not the same.

An outbreak of herpes is uncomfortable.

This article explores different types of herpes, how oral herpes and genital herpes are treated, and how to know when you should see a doctor.

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What is Herpes?

Herpes is a type of infection caused by the herpes simplex virus.

HSV-1 is common and widespread across the world, affecting around 67% of the global population.

There are other types of herpes viruses that are also common and cause infections like chickenpox, shingles, and mononucleosis.

Types of Herpes

There are eight herpes viruses that infect humans.

  • Herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2) cause oral herpes and genital herpes. These are the most common types of herpes infections.
  • Cytomegalovirus is a common virus that rarely causes symptoms or complications outside of infants or immune-compromised people.
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma virus (also known as human herpesvirus 8) causes a rare type of cancer primarily in people who have HIV or AIDS.

Herpes Outbreak Symptoms

When most people refer to a herpes outbreak, they mean genital herpes or HSV-2.

However, HSV-1 can also cause genital sores, although most commonly it causes cold sores or fever blisters in or around the mouth.

Both types of the herpes simplex virus can result in outbreaks of sores that are highly contagious from direct contact with the fluid in the sores or from an infected person’s saliva.

The symptoms of a herpes simplex virus outbreak or a reactivated virus can be similar between HSV-1 and HSV-2.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 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. Around 67% of the world’s population under age 50 have this virus.
  • HSV-2 most commonly causes sores around the genitals, anus, or thighs. Around 13% of the world’s population under age 50 have this viral strain.

Signs of a herpes outbreak can be similar between both types of virus. They include:

Both viruses can be asymptomatic, even when someone is contagious.

How Long Does an Oral Herpes Outbreak Last?

Oral herpes outbreaks typically resolve on their own, with or without treatment, in 1-2 weeks.

Using antiviral medication or topical creams at the first sign of an outbreak may be able to prevent or shorten the duration of an active cold sore outbreak.

How Long Does a Genital Herpes Outbreak Last?

The first outbreak of genital herpes typically lasts for an average of 20 days.

Recurrent outbreaks are typically shorter and may last around 10 days.

Using antiviral medications may be able to shorten the duration.

People who are immune compromised may experience longer outbreaks.

What Causes Recurrent Herpes Outbreaks?

Once a patient acquires a herpes virus, it stays in the body for life.

The immune system puts viruses into dormancy.

Many people get the herpes simplex virus and never experience an outbreak or symptoms.

Others will have an initial outbreak, but no recurrences.

Some people get more frequent herpes outbreaks.

HSV-1 or oral herpes causes an average of one recurring outbreak after the initial infection for between 20-50% of people who have the virus.

HSV-2 causes an average of four outbreaks in the first year for as many as 90% of people who have the virus.

Outbreaks of herpes simplex typically become less frequent, and less severe, the longer the virus is in the body.

People who have compromised immune systems may experience more frequent, or more severe, outbreaks.

Herpes Treatment Options

There is no cure for herpes viruses.

But there are antiviral treatment options that may shorten or prevent future outbreaks and help to manage pain and discomfort.

  • Topical antiviral creams: For cold sore outbreaks, topical antiviral creams can help shorten the duration of an outbreak by approximately one day. Some are available OTC, like docosanol 10% (Abreva), benzyl alcohol (Zilactin-L), and dimethicone with sunscreen (Herpecin-L). Others require a prescription, such as penciclovir cream (Denavir) or acyclovir cream (Zovirax).

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When to See a Doctor

If you experience signs of a herpes outbreak, either with cold sores around the mouth or with herpes blisters around the genitals, you should see your doctor.

If it is a first outbreak, a medical provider can give you an accurate diagnosis.

If it is a recurring outbreak, a healthcare provider may be able to prescribe medication to shorten the frequency of outbreaks.

While there is no cure for oral or genital herpes, some prescription and OTC treatments may relieve discomfort.

How K Health Can Help

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Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for herpes flare-up to go away?
Oral herpes outbreaks may take 1-2 weeks to resolve. Genital herpes may take 10-20 days to clear up. People who have compromised immune systems or other health problems may experience longer outbreaks.
What are the stages of a herpes outbreak?
Herpes outbreaks tend to occur with predictable symptoms, although some people may be contagious with the herpes virus but show no symptoms. Most people experience tingling or other sensations 1-3 days before a herpes blister outbreak, followed by the appearance of sores. Over the next several days, sores will swell and fill with fluid. They will burst and crust over, followed by a scabbing stage, before healing and disappearing. Do not try to pop or get rid of herpes blisters. This will not speed the healing process and may lead to a wound infection around the blisters or a prolonged outbreak.
What triggers a herpes outbreak?
Once a person gets a herpes virus, it stays in the body for life. Some people never experience outbreaks, while others will. Outbreaks happen when the immune system is not able to keep the virus dormant. Sometimes this can occur from a specific trigger, like a stressful event. Cold sores may also be triggered by sunlight exposure, other illnesses, hormone changes, and more.
What can be mistaken for herpes?
Canker sores are often mistaken for herpes blisters. Canker sores are small, white, and typically form on soft tissues in the mouth, like the cheeks or underside of the lips. Herpes blisters typically appear on the outside of the mouth or on harder tissue inside the mouth and are red.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Frank DiVincenzo, MD

Dr. Frank DiVincenzo has been a physician with K Health since 2020. He grew up near Chicago, Illinois, but left the big city to go to college and then attend graduate school in Missouri. He received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Master of Science in Microbiology before graduating from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Medicine.