We often hear the question, “what does herpes look like”? Because no one really likes to talk about the details of what happens to your private parts when you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). But, it’s time to break that barrier!
As squeamish as it might make you, learning how to identify herpes can benefit you and your partner(s) in the long run. You’ll thank yourself (and us) later.
In this blog, we will explain the visual aspects of herpes so that you know what to look for. But first, let’s quickly brush up on our herpes knowledge.
What Is Herpes?
Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus that causes sores or blisters to emerge on certain parts of the body.
There are two types:
- Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1): HSV-1 is the most common type of herpesvirus and the most common cause of both oral and genital herpes. HSV-1 can cause symptoms around the mouth (“oral herpes”) or the anogenital area (“genital herpes”). Around the lips and mouth, this causes “cold sores” - not to be confused with coleslaws, like we often hear! It is estimated that 4% of European adults are infected with HSV-1.
- Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2): HSV-2 is almost exclusively sexually transmitted, and causes sores and blisters around the genitals, anus, thighs or buttocks. In rare cases, HSV-2 can also infect the mouth and cause oral herpes. In addition, HSV-2 is more likely to cause recurrent episodes of genital herpes than HSV-1.
The visual appearance of HSV-1 and HSV-2 is indistinguishable, and both types cause exactly the same symptoms. Therefore, you cannot tell by looking which type of HSV is causing an outbreak.
The herpes virus infects the epithelium (skin) cells of the body, and likes to infect parts of the skin that become moist, such as the vulva, vagina, penis, mouth and anus. Any contact with an infected area of skin can transmit the virus. No, you can’t get it from a toilet seat--this is a common misconception. Read more about the transmission of herpes in our blog post.
Currently, there is no cure for the herpes virus, and most people don’t need any specific treatment. Once someone has contracted herpes, technically they will have it for life as the virus persists inside nerve cells. Some people will never develop symptoms at all, some people will have one episode of symptoms in their whole life, and some people will experience infrequent or frequent flare-ups.
So, what does herpes look like?
What Does Herpes Look Like On A Man?
Male genital herpes can cause singular or clusters of blisters to develop anywhere in the genital region. The most common place for genital herpes on a man is the penis, particularly around the head of the penis and the shaft. However, in some cases, herpes lesions can be inside the urethra and may not be fully visible. Herpes can also affect the anus, particularly in men who have sex with men.
The first noticeable sign is often a patch of redness or swelling on the skin, which then develops small red or white pimples, typically in a cluster of 2–3. These then develop into blisters, filled with a clear yellow fluid. Sometimes the blisters can coalesce (join together) to form larger fluid-filled blisters. The sores typically burst and ooze a clear or yellow discharge, before crusting over and forming a yellow scab. The scab drops off as the lesions heal, and the skin repairs itself back to normal in a few days.
Genital herpes can also cause swollen lymph nodes, which can be visible as soft bumps in the groin area.
What Does Herpes Look Like On A Woman?
Women with genital herpes typically develop blisters on the vulva, but these can also develop inside the vagina, on the cervix, around the anus or on the thighs.
Quick anatomy lesson: the vulva is the external part of the female genitals and includes the outer lips (labia majora), inner lips (labia minora), clitoris, vaginal opening and the urethral opening.
Genital sores look the same in women as they do in men–often the first noticeable visual change is a redness or swelling. Then, small white pimples or bumps develop. These then become fluid-filled blisters which are raised from the surrounding skin, which may be red and irritated. The blisters then burst, becoming wet ulcers that then scab over and heal completely. Often ulcers and scabbing can be difficult to see on the vulva, and may just look like slightly differently coloured areas.
Unusual vaginal discharge can be a symptom of genital herpes, but may also be a sign of another infection, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea. Not sure what “normal” is? Read our blog on vaginal discharge and consider ordering one of our at-home STI testing kits to rule out other infections.
Herpes can also cause sores around the anus, which can be difficult to see, and in some cases, soft swellings around the groin caused by swollen glands.
Shop Our At-Home STI Test Kits
Test your sexual health from home with our range of at-home STI tests.Shop Now
What Does Oral Herpes Look Like?
Oral herpes causes blisters, known as cold sores, to develop around the mouth, lips, chin, tongue or below the nose. These may start as an area of dry, red or swollen skin. Then the tell-tale fluid-filled blisters form, which are usually red, yellow or white. These burst and form a yellow-ish scab which crusts and heals. Again, these may start out looking like small pimples, which can be easily confused with your average spot. So how can you tell?
There are a few key differences to be aware of to help you identify cold sores vs spots:
- Cold sores generally show up around the mouth area, whereas spots appear anywhere on the face
- Cold sores may feel itchy, tingly or have a burning sensation before any actual blistering appears, whereas spots usually start off feeling tender and raised
- Cold sores are usually made up of a cluster of small blisters, whereas a spot usually has a single blackhead or whitehead.
Other Symptoms Of Herpes
Other than the symptoms discussed above, common herpes symptoms to look out for include:
- Itchy, dry, inflamed, red or swollen skin
- A burning sensation during urination
- Tingling, throbbing or pain in the affected area
- Flu-like symptoms such as aches, pains, fever and fatigue
However, herpes does not always have symptoms, so many people don’t know they have it. The virus lies dormant in your body and you may not experience a flare-up for years after you have contracted it, or you might never be troubled with symptoms.
Symptoms may also be very mild so are often confused with things like spots, ingrown hairs or the flu.
It’s also important to remember that even though visible herpes symptoms go away after time, the virus stays in your body and you can still pass it on to others, using barrier protection during sexual intercourse reduces the chances of transmission.
Take the stress out of getting an STI check-up by ordering one of our at-home STI testing kits. We deliver straight to your door, so you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your home!
After reading this post, if someone were to ask you “what does herpes look like?”, we hope you will have the answer. But let’s quickly recap to make sure!
Herpes is a common STI that is caused by the HSV virus. It causes visible sores or blisters to develop around the mouth (oral herpes) or genital area (genital herpes). In both men and women, a genital herpes flare-up begins as small pimples on or around the penis, vulva, vagina, anus, buttocks or thighs. These develop into larger fluid-filled blisters which burst and form scabs.
Oral herpes causes these same blisters to appear around the mouth area. As sores start out as small pimples, it is easy to confuse them with spots, so it’s important to be aware of the differences.
Yoxly’s STI test kits help you take control of your sexual health, without the hassle. Check out our different kits and get today. You can also find out more information about sexual health and STIs on our blog.