Herpes On Skin: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention, & Treatment

Written by Swathi E, Certified Skin Care Coach

Herpes on skin is caused by a viral infection, which starts as a small pimple-like bump and develops into sores or rashes. These rashes may appear on different body parts, including the area around the mouth or the genital, depending on the type of virus that caused the infection.

More than one out of every six people between ages 14 and 49 have some form of herpes in the US (1). It is contagious and may spread through skin contact with the infected person. Awareness is the best possible way to prevent and deal with herpes. This article explores herpes rashes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention tips. Scroll down.

What Is A Herpes Skin Rash?

Herpes rash is a skin infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) 1 and 2. Both viruses cause rashes but in different ways and locations on the body. “Herpetic skin rash is caused by a virus that is passed from person to person through physical contact with an infected lesion,” says Dr. Sabina Rebis, a family medicine physician. “The viral particles from the lesion must be in contact with either a mucosal membrane (like the lips or the vaginal mucosa) or an open wound/scrape/abrasion on the other person to transmit,” adds Dr. Sabina Rebis.

Read on to understand further the causes of these rashes and where they occur.

Where Do Herpes Rashes Occur And What Causes Them?

The HSV-1 rashes usually appear around the mouth or lips and spread through kissing and touching the infected area. The HSV-2 rashes appear around the genitals and the pubic region and transmit through skin-skin contact (usually sexual contact).

The infection mostly occurs near the mouth and genital area. However, if you touch a herpes sore, it can transfer to your finger and any other body part that you may later touch.

You can get infected through:

  • Touching a herpes sore
  • Saliva or genital secretion of a person who has the infection
  • Physical contact with the infected person
  • Using the same lip balm or toothbrush as the infected person

You will not get herpes from:

  • Sharing a toilet seat
  • Touching the same surface or objects
  • Sharing the same bed

Herpes infection can also be transferred from the mother to the infant during childbirth. Therefore, if you have an infection, it is better to consult the doctor during your pregnancy and seek proper treatment.

We now understand how herpes transmits. But what are its symptoms? How do you know if you have contracted herpes?

Symptoms Of Herpes

Symptoms of herpes include tingling, itching, burning, sores, or blisters around the mouth or genitals. Herpes may also cause swollen lymph glands and discomfort due to body aches, headaches, or fever.

While the infection around the mouth is called oral herpes, that around the genitals is called genital herpes.
The symptoms often occur in three to seven days from the time of exposure (2). While the symptoms of HSV-1 can last up to two to six weeks, HSV-2 symptoms can last up to three weeks (3).

The symptoms may become less severe and occur less often after the initial breakout. In addition, the recurrence of HSV-1 infection is far less frequent than the HSV-2 infection (4).

But would these symptoms recur? Or can you cure herpes once and for all? Let us understand more in the next section.

Is Herpes Curable?

No, herpes is not curable. The virus stays in the body once a person gets infected. It moves from the skin cells to nerve cells after the first outbreak and stays there. This is the dormant stage, and the virus may become active again. In addition, stress, illness, fatigue, sun exposure, fever, menstrual periods, or surgery can activate the virus.

We know that prevention is always better than cure. So how can you prevent a herpes infection? Find out in the next section.

How To Prevent Herpes?

According to Dr. Sabina Rebis, “Prevention means not engaging in sexual intercourse with someone with an active breakout as chances of transmission increase with an active lesion.”

As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of infection transmission can be reduced by using condoms while having sex. But it cannot provide complete protection as it can occur in areas not covered by a condom (4).

People infected with herpes should consider proper antiviral therapy to suppress outbreaks and prevent transmission. Let us now understand the treatment options available for herpes infection.

Treatment Options Available For Herpes On Skin

Treatment options for herpes are targeted to reduce the duration of the outbreak and symptoms. The doctor may recommend antiviral medicines like acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir to relieve burning, itching, etc.,

Are There Any Home Remedies For Herpes?

According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Stacy Chimento, “There has been insufficient evidence to support the routine use of these remedies. Tea tree oil seems to help with herpes. However, it must be diluted with a carrier oil before using it on a cold sore. Diluted apple cider vinegar also may help treat a cold sore breakout because of its antimicrobial properties.” However, she feels it is better to talk to your doctor before attempting these home remedies.

When To Consult A Doctor?

Though medications are available, the virus can cause complications in some people. Anyone with a long-term health condition, cancer, HIV, or undergone an organ transplant should seek immediate medical attention if they develop herpes.

“You should consult a doctor if you have severe symptoms that don’t go away. For example, symptoms like blisters or sores near eyes, persistent or high fever, or severe dehydration that doesn’t allow you to drink or eat”, says Dr. Stacy Chimento.

She also recommends consulting a doctor if you experience difficulty swallowing or breathing, your cold sore does not heal within two weeks, or if you experience irritation in your eyes.

People often confuse other rashes with herpes and may worry unnecessarily. But it is important to know the difference.

Other Common Rashes

Not every case of inflamed skin with painful rashes is a herpes infection. Other rashes or infections with a similar appearance include:

  • Dermatitis: It can occur anywhere on the body. There are two types of dermatitis – contact and atopic. While contact dermatitis heals after the exposure to the irritant has stopped, atopic dermatitis can be prevented by proper moisturization.
  • Jock Itch: It is a fungal infection that looks like a red rash with small blisters. But these blisters will not crust over like herpes. Instead, jock itch usually appears on the inner thighs and groin.
  • Shingles: It is a painful skin rash with symptoms like itching and fluid-filled blisters. Unlike herpes, it appears in a small area on a person’s face, neck, or body.
  • Razor Burns: It is an acne-like rash caused while shaving. It often creates red bumps and ingrown hairs that can be mistaken for herpes sores.
  • Scabies: Unlike herpes, scabies can appear anywhere on the body. The signs of infection include redness, small pimples, bumps, or blisters.

Herpes is a common virus that can cause rash-like burning sores on the skin. These most commonly appear around the lips or genital area, but they can appear elsewhere on the body. Herpes infection has no cure since the virus prefers to linger in the body. Proper measures and treatment approaches, on the other hand, can aid in the management of this condition and the ability to lead a regular life. Because the symptoms might appear at any time during one’s life, antiviral medications should be considered to suppress them and prevent their recurrence.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do herpes outbreaks last?

Herpes outbreaks last up to two to six weeks, and the frequency of outbreaks can be reduced with proper medications.

Can you get herpes on other parts of your body?

Though herpes usually occurs around the mouth or genitals, one may experience it on other parts of the body too.

What does herpes look like?

Herpes on the skin initially looks like small bumps or pimples. These may later develop into clusters of small, fluid-filled blisters.

Key Takeaways

  • Herpes rash is a skin infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) 1 and 2.
  • HSV-1 rashes spread through kissing and touching the infected area. The HSV-2 rashes transmit through skin-skin contact (usually sexual contact).
  • Antiviral medicines like acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir can relieve burning and itching caused by herpes rash.


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  1. Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet
  2. Herpes Simplex Type 1
  3. Herpes Simplex Type 2
  4. Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed)
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