What Does Herpes Look Like

In this picture, the lesions look more like erosions (where only part of the top layer of skin is damaged). If you look closely, however, you can see that each red area has a cluster of small sores.

What Does a Herpes Sore Look Like?

Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.

Updated on July 20, 2022

Renita White, MD, FACOG, is a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist who practices at Georgia Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Herpes is a type of viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types known as herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), both of which can cause the outbreak of blisters and painful sores.

HSV-1 is the type most commonly associated with cold sores (oral herpes), while HSV-2 accounts for the majority of genital herpes infections. However, HSV-1 can also be spread to the genitals and HSV-2 can be spread to the mouth through oral sex.

This gallery of images describes the signs and symptoms of a herpes infection, including what a herpes sore looks like. It also differentiates herpes from similar conditions with similar features so that you can seek appropriate treatment.

Note: Some of the following images are of genital areas.

Early Herpes Symptoms

Herpes rash early

Once infected, herpes viruses stay with you forever. There is no cure. When the virus is inactive, it will imbed itself in nerve cells near the spinal cord (called the spinal nerve root).

When herpes reactivates, the virus will travel up the string of nerves to the surface of the skin where it will cause an outbreak of tiny blisters called vesicles . The vesicles will then erupt, causing painful open ulcers commonly referred to as herpes sores.

This photo shows an example of the early stages of a herpes rash, the blisters of which are clustered in a red patch. In addition to pain, there may be itchiness or a pins-and-needles sensation.

Prodromal Symptoms of Herpes

Prior to a herpes outbreak, people will often have prodromal symptoms (meaning non-specific signs that precede major symptoms). With herpes, this may include localized genital pain, or tingling or shooting pains in the legs, hips, or buttocks. This may occur hours or days before the actual outbreak.

The outbreak may also be preceded by flu-like symptoms like fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes, particularly during the first outbreak.

Herpes Vesicles

Herpes on leg

There are three stages of a herpes outbreak:

  • Prodromal: This is when the virus reactivates and migrates to the surface of the skin, causing non-specific nerve pain or sensations.
  • Vesicular: This is when blisters (vesicles) develop.
  • Ulcerative: This is when the blisters break open to form skin ulcers.

This picture illustrates the formation of vesicles. Note the cluster of vesicles on a red base. These fluid-filled blisters are delicate and break open easily, creating open, oozing sores. Eventually, the sore will stop oozing and crust over.

How Herpes Is Treated

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are treated with antiviral drugs. They are most effective when started within 48 to 72 hours of the first signs of an outbreak. They do not cure herpes but may reduce the severity and duration of an outbreak. Recommended options include:

  • Zovirax ( acyclovir )
  • Famvir ( famciclovir )
  • Valtrex ( valacyclovir)

Typical Herpes Outbreak of the Penis

Typical Lesions on Penis

This picture illustrates a typical herpes outbreak of the penis. Note how some of the tiny blisters have converged into larger ones.

Severe cases like this tend to occur during a first outbreak (called primary herpes). Thereafter, the body will have produced immune proteins, called antibodies, that are not able to neutralize the virus but can help control the infection.

As a result, subsequent outbreaks tend to be far less severe.

Atypical Herpes Outbreak of the Penis

Atypical Lesions on Penis

Because the genital area is warm and moist, herpes can sometimes have an atypical appearance in places like the penis, vagina, and anus.

In this picture, the lesions look more like erosions (where only part of the top layer of skin is damaged). If you look closely, however, you can see that each red area has a cluster of small sores.

Herpes Outbreaks in Females

Lesion on Vulva

This picture shows a herpes ulcer on the vulva. The vulva is the external part of the female genitalia.

Females are four times more likely to get an HSV-2 infection than males. In addition, females may have symptoms that are not readily recognized as herpes.

For instance, a female may feel pelvic pain if the rash is located inside the vagina or on the cervix. This could lead to a misdiagnosis of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

Also, many females experience burning with urination during a genital herpes outbreak. The burning may be misdiagnosed as a urinary tract infection (UTI).

Typical Healing of Genital Herpes Sores

Herpes simplex

Note the crusting that has occurred near the head of the penis in this photo. The crust forms as fluids from the blisters evaporate and leave behind whitish or yellowish crystals.

In addition to pain, the oozing sores will often have a “fishy” smell in both females and males. The smell can increase after sex due to the abrasion of skin on skin.

The timeline of a genital herpes outbreak can vary. With primary herpes, the outbreak will usually occur within four days of exposure to the virus (although it can occur anywhere from two to 12 days after exposure).

A genital herpes outbreak may last up to seven to 10 days, particularly with the first outbreak. After crusting, healing usually occurs within two to four weeks, typically with no scarring.

Atypical Healing of Genital Herpes Sores

Healing Lesions on Penis

This picture shows herpes lesions after some of the blisters have broken open. Typically, you will see a whitish or yellowish crust forming on the ulcers.

With that said, crusting may not be all that apparent. Because the skin of the penis and vagina is moist, there may be minimal crusting. Instead, there may be a whitish film covering or surrounding the open sores.

Cold Sores (Oral Herpes)

cold-sore-lip-hiv-symptoms

Cold sores (also called fever blisters, oral herpes, or orolabial herpes ) are more often caused by herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) than herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2).

Cold sores progress in much the same way as genital herpes. HSV-1 can also affect the tongue, gums, or face.

HSV-1 can also be passed to the genitals or anus via oral sex. While it is often impossible to tell which type of HSV caused a genital herpes outbreak, those involving HSV-1 are less to recur.

Herpetic Whitlow

Early infection on finger

HSV-1 and HSV-2 can both be spread to other parts of the body by hand-to-skin contact, such as rubbing a sore and touching your face, eye, or anus.

This can occur between someone with herpes and someone without. You can even auto-inoculate by touching a sore on your body and then another part of your own body.

The finger is a common place to get a herpes infection to spread. In fact, it’s common enough to have its own name: herpetic whitlow .

This picture shows the early stage of a herpes whitlow infection. Since the skin on the fingers is thicker, the blisters aren’t as fragile and may not break open.

Herpetic whitlow can occur if you come in contact with herpes sores or blisters, either from HSV-1 or HSV-2.

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Herpetic Keratitis

Herpes Lesion Around the Eye

HSV-1 and HSV-2 can also be transmitted to the eye by hand-to-skin contact, such as rubbing the eyes after touching a blister or sore.

This picture shows herpetic keratitis , a herpes infection that involves the cornea (the outside covering of the eye). Note the blisters around the eyelid and crusting ulcers near the eyes.

Symptoms of herpetic keratitis may include:

  • Eye pain
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Watery discharge
  • Blurry vision

Herpes of the eye is serious and requires immediate care by an eye specialist known as an ophthalmologist . If left untreated, herpetic keratitis can cause corneal scarring and vision loss.

Herpes Simplex vs. Chickenpox

Chicken pox

Chickenpox is caused by a herpes virus called varicella-zoster virus (VSV). While chickenpox can cause blistering and crusting sores like HSV, there are certain tell-tale signs that differentiate them.

With the chickenpox, note that each blister in this photo has its own red base and is not clustered in a group like HSV.

As opposed to a localized outbreak, chickenpox usually starts on the torso, scalp, and face before spreading to the arms and legs. The rash can also cause sores in the eyes, mouth, and vagina, although this is uncommon.

And, unlike HSV, a chickenpox rash can leave behind scars after it heals.

Herpes Simplex vs. Aphthous Ulcers

Ulcer

This is a picture of aphthous ulcers , a type of oral sore that is often confused with cold sores. Aphthous ulcers can occur anywhere in the mouth, but do not involve the outside of the lip. They are not caused by the herpes virus.

Aphthous ulcers (also known as canker sores) are painful, non-contagious ulcers limited to the inside of the mouth. As opposed to herpes blisters, aphthous ulcers start as painful sores that are yellowish or whitish in color with a red border.

Aphthous ulcers can be caused by the following.

  • Coxsackievirus
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Chemotherapy
  • Autoimmune diseases (like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)

Summary

Herpes is a viral infection caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Although HSV-1 mainly causes cold sores and HSV-2 mainly causes genital herpes, they can cause herpes outbreaks on other parts of the body due to oral sex or hand-to-skin contact. Many genital herpes infections today are due to HSV-1.

Herpes progresses in stages and causes the outbreak of blisters and painful ulcerative sores. This is followed by the crusting of the sores. Healing usually occurs within two to four weeks.

A Word From Verywell

Herpes infections are common. While they cannot be cured, they can be managed or prevented with antiviral drugs. If you have symptoms of herpes, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. They can take a swab of the sore to confirm whether you have been infected.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is herpetic whitlow?

Herpetic whitlow is a viral infection that usually causes a red, blistering rash to appear on one finger. It is possible for multiple fingers to be affected, but this is rare. If complications occur, herpetic whitlow can also cause scarring, nail damage, numbness, and skin hypersensitivity.

What causes a blister to form?

Blisters, also known as vesicles or vesicular lesions, are formed when fluid becomes trapped beneath the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis) which causes a small bubble to appear. Causes can range from allergic reactions and minor trauma to herpes or chickenpox.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Modi S, Van L, Gewirtzman A, et al. Single-day treatment for orolabial and genital herpes: a brief review of pathogenesis and pharmacology. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2008;4(2):409-17.
  2. Sauerbrei A. Herpes genitalis: Diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Geburtshilfe Frauenheilkd. 2016;76(12):1310-1317. doi:10.1055/s-0042-116494
  3. Wu IB, Schwartz RA. Herpetic whitlow. Cutis. 2007;79(3):193-6.
  4. Edgar NR, Saleh D, Miller RA. Recurrent aphthous stomatitis: A Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(3):26-36.

Additional Reading

  • American Academy of Dermatology. Herpes simplex: Signs and symptoms.
  • Bernstein DI, Bellamy AR, Hook EW, et al. Epidemiology, clinical presentation, and antibody response to primary infection with herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2 in young women. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2013;56(3):344-351. doi:10.1093/cid/cis891
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HSV infections. Updated January 25, 2021.

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.

Genital Herpes Symptoms, Pictures, and Treatment

Genital Herpes Symptoms

You may feel itchy or tingly around your genitals. This is usually followed by painful, small blisters that pop and leave sores that ooze or bleed. Most people notice symptoms within a few weeks after they catch the virus from someone else. The first time it happens, you may also have a fever, headache, or other flu-like feelings. Some people have few or no symptoms.

How You Do -- and Don’t -- Get Herpes

How You Do — and Don’t — Get Herpes

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You get herpes by having any kind of sex — vaginal, oral, or anal — with someone who’s infected. It’s so common in the U.S. that 1 in every 5 adults has it. Herpes can be spread during oral sex if you or your partner has a cold sore. Because the virus can’t live long outside your body, you can’t catch it from something like a toilet seat or towel.

Worried It’s Herpes?

Worried It’s Herpes?

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Sometimes people mistake a pimple or ingrown hair for herpes. Your doctor can take a small sample from sores by using a swab test. If you don’t have symptoms but think you might have herpes, your doctor can do a blood test. It may take a few days to get your results.

What Causes It?

What Causes It?

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Genital herpes usually comes from the virus called herpes simplex-2 (HSV-2). Its cousin, HSV-1, is what gives you cold sores. You can get HSV-2 from someone whether they have symptoms or not.

How Is Herpes Treated?

How Is Herpes Treated?

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Your doctor will prescribe an antiviral medicine. These pills can help you feel better and shorten an outbreak. In the meantime, don’t kiss or have any kind of sex with other people. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you can still spread the disease.

How to Prevent an Outbreak

How to Prevent an Outbreak

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Some people only take their medications if they feel the itching and tingling that means an outbreak is coming on — or when sores show up — to stop it from getting worse. Your doctor may suggest you take an antiviral every day if you:

  • Have lots of outbreaks
  • Want to prevent more outbreaks
  • Want to lower the risk of spreading it to your partner

Is There a Cure?

Is There a Cure?

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You can treat herpes, but once you get it, you’ll always have it. When symptoms show up, it’s called having an outbreak. The first is usually the worst. Most people have them on and off for several years, but they get milder and happen less often over time.

How to Avoid Herpes

How to Avoid Herpes

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As long as you’re sexually active, there’s a chance you could get herpes. You’ll make it a lot less likely if you use a latex or polyurethane condom or dental dam every time, for every activity. The dam or condom only protects the area it covers. If you don’t have herpes, you and your partner should get tested for STDs before sex. If you’re both disease-free and aren’t having sex with other people, you should be safe.

How to Feel Better During an Outbreak

How to Feel Better During an Outbreak

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  • Wear loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear.
  • Avoid sun or heat that could cause more blisters.
  • Take a warm, soothing bath.
  • Don’t use perfumed soaps or douches near your blisters.

What Triggers an Outbreak?

What Triggers an Outbreak?

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The herpes virus stays in your body forever, even if you have no symptoms. You may have an outbreak when you’re sick, after you’ve been out in the sun, or when you’re stressed out or tired. If you’re a woman, you could get one when you start your period.

Sex and Herpes

Sex and Herpes

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You still can have sex if you have genital herpes, but you must tell your partner you have the virus. They need to know so they can get tested. Wear a condom any time you have sex. Never have sex during an outbreak.

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Problems With Herpes

Problems With Herpes

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People often don’t have serious problems from herpes, but there’s a chance of them. Wash your hands often, especially during an outbreak. If you touch a blister and rub your eyes, the infection can spread to your eyes. If your eyes are red, swollen, hurt, or are sensitive to light, see your doctor. Treating it can help prevent serious vision problems.

Herpes and Pregnancy

Herpes and Pregnancy

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If you’re pregnant and have herpes, your doctor may suggest that you have your baby by C-section if you are experiencing an outbreak. Why? During vaginal birth, the herpes virus could spread to your baby, especially if your first outbreak happens around the delivery time. The virus could give your baby rashes, eye problems, or more serious issues. A C-section makes that less likely. Your doctor may also have you take anti-viral medicine starting at about 34 weeks to avoid an outbreak around your due date.

Tips for

Tips for ‘“The Talk’”

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Getting ready to talk to your partner about herpes? These tips can help you prepare for the conversation. The American Sexual Health Association recommends you pick a time when you won’t be interrupted, plan what you want to say ahead of time, and practice what you’ll say so you feel confident.

Show Sources

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

(1) Interactive Medical Media LLC, Fitzpatrick’s Color Atlas & Synopsis of Clinical Dermatology, Dr. Harold Fisher
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(3) iStock
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(8) Photo Alto
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(14) Photonica

Brown University Health Education: “Genital Herpes.”

CDC: “Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet.”

Kimberlin, D. Human Herpes Viruses, 2007.

TeensHealth: “Genital Herpes.”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “What You Need to Know About STDs.”

UpToDate.com: “Patient information: Genital herpes (Beyond the Basics).”

WomensHealth.gov: “Genital herpes fact sheet.”

What Does Herpes Look Like? Types and Treatment

HSV-1

Herpes is a skin infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It results in the formation of painful blisters or sores on the skin, typically around the mouth or genitals.

Signs and symptoms of herpes are as follows:

  • Herpes (herpes rash) looks like one or more fluid-filled blisters or sores that ooze and later crust before healing.
  • The infected skin may tingle, pain, itch, or burn for a day before the sores show up.
  • Sores usually take between 2 and 20 days to appear after a person comes in contact with an infected person.
  • Sores can take anywhere between 7 and 10 days to clear up.
  • Fever, muscle aches, swollen nodes in the neck, or groin may be present.
  • Difficulty in passing urine (in genital herpes) can be observed.
  • Herpes keratitis (an eye infection in which the eyes become painful, sensitive to light, discharge fluid, and get gritty sensation) can be observed.

Around 8 of 10 people who get HSV infection do not develop any signs or symptoms.

What are the two types of herpes?

Herpes (HSV)

There are two types of herpes: Oral herpes (HSV-1) and Genital herpes (HSV-2)

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is of two types depending upon where it commonly occurs on the body:

Oral herpes (HSV-1): Blisters most commonly appear

  • On the lips.
  • Around the mouth.
  • On face.
  • On the tongue.

These usually last for two to three weeks.

Genital herpes (HSV-2): The most typical sites of sores are as follows:

The first outbreak takes two to six weeks to go away.

What is the best treatment for herpes?

There is no cure for herpes simplex virus (HSV). More often, herpes sores clear on their own, without taking any treatment. However, people who wish to reduce the severity of the symptoms and get treated fast usually opt for medicines. Medicines may also reduce the risk of the spread of the infection.

Most people are treated with an antiviral medication that can be given in the form of

  • A cream/ointment to relieve pain, burning, itching, or tingling.
  • Oral pills or intravenous (shot) to shorten the outbreak.

The best choice of treatment for herpes (to date) is the antiviral medication that is available on a doctor’s prescription. Apart from treating the infected person, it also helps in preventing the spread of the virus to others.

The major antiviral medications are as follows:

What Does Herpes Look Like

QUESTION

How can herpes be prevented?

To stop the spread of the virus from the affected part (oral or genital) to other parts of the body, the following options can be helpful:

  • Cleaning the hands: Washing the hands upon contact with the sore
  • No-touch method: Using a cotton-tip swab to apply an antiviral cream to the cold sore

When a person has oral herpes, they can prevent the virus from spreading to others by following a few precautionary tips:

  • The person should avoid kissing anyone.
  • The person should refrain from oral sex.
  • The person should not share personal items such as cups, towels, and lip balms.
  • If there is tingling, burning, itching, or pain in the area of the body where the person had a herpes sore, they should keep that area from coming in contact with others directly or through articles such as towels or cosmetics.

If a person has genital herpes and they want to prevent the spread of the virus, what they can do is:

  • Not to have sex with healthy (uninfected) partners until the sores clear up
  • Use a latex condom to reduce the risk of spreading the virus
  • If a woman is pregnant and she or her partner is having genital herpes, they need to inform the doctor. The pregnant lady might need to take medicines so that she does not pass the virus to her baby.

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References

Herpes Simplex. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/herpes-simplex-symptoms

Herpes Simplex. Available at: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/218580-overview

Top What Does Herpes Look Like: Pictures and Treatment Related Articles

5 Things You Should Know About Herpes

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What is the difference between cold sores and herpes?

Can Genital Warts Be Mistaken for Herpes?

What is the Difference between genital warts and herpes, and, can genital warts be mistaken for herpes?

Genital Herpes

What’s going on down there? WebMD shows you pictures of genital herpes symptoms and treatments — and how to avoid getting the virus in the first place.

What Is Genital Herpes in Women?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Symptoms of genital herpes include painful blisters and often fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes for the first outbreak. Genital herpes is diagnosed with lab tests to test for the presence of the virus. Treatment for genital herpes includes antiviral medications to shorten the duration of the outbreak or reduce the risk of future outbreaks. There is no cure for genital herpes. Condoms may help prevent the spread of genital herpes.

Genital Herpes Quiz

What is genital herpes? Learn the causes, symptoms in men and women, and treatments for this common sexually transmitted skin disease.

Eye Herpes

Herpes of the eye occurs due to herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). Symptoms of herpes of the eye include pain in and around the eye, rash or sores on the eyelids, redness, swelling, and cloudiness of the cornea.

Cold Sores (Oral Herpes, Herpes Labialis)

Herpes simplex infections are common and when they appear around the mouth and lips, people often refer to them as “cold sores” and “fever blisters.” Canker sores are different than cold sores. Air droplets can spread the virus, as can direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. Cold sore treatment include over-the-counter medication, as well as prescription medications.

Herpes Simplex Virus Type Picture 1

A herpes virus that causes cold sores and fever blisters in and around the mouth. See a picture of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and learn more about the health topic.

Is It Possible to Cure Herpes?

Most of us will likely have to deal with herpes at some point. Learn more about herpes and what you can do to treat it.

What Causes Herpes on Lips?

What is oral herpes, and how do you know if you have it? Learn the signs of oral herpes and what to do if you get an outbreak.

What Do Herpes Sores Look Like at Different Stages?

Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) are the two types of herpes virus and will look different as they develop during five stages.

What Triggers Herpes?

Once a person is infected with herpes, the virus may stay dormant or quiet within the nerves. It is not known what exactly may trigger the symptoms.

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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