What Does Herpes Look Like and What Is It Exactly?

Should a person notice blisters or ulcers on their body, particularly around the mouth or on their genital area, one of the first questions that is likely to pop into their mind would be, “what does herpes look like?” And unfortunately, this question is often well founded as herpes is a rather common medical condition.

To be precise, it is a viral disease and the cause is the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Furthermore, there are two distinct types of the virus – HSV-1 (type 1) and HSV-2 (type 2). Type 1 is usually (but not always) associated with mouth infections, whereas type 2 tends to be the cause behind genital infections.

We already mentioned that herpes was very widespread. Unsurprisingly, this holds true for both types of the virus. However, what may come as a bit of a surprise is just how common these infections actually are. According to the World Health Organization, around 67% of the global population below the age of 50 is suffering from an HSV-1 infection. When it comes to HSV-2, the situation is not as drastic but is still enough to cause major concern – approximately 11% of all people between the ages of 15 and 49 have it.


Even without any research, many people would be able to recognize the “classic” symptoms of herpes – blisters, sores, and ulcers that eventually turn to scabs during the healing process. But once you look at the figures from the previous paragraph, you may wonder why you aren’t seeing people with those signs on an everyday basis.

Well, the reason is quite simple – most people who have herpes exhibit very mild physical symptoms or even none at all. For this reason, it is possible to confuse herpes with something as mundane as an insect bite, an ingrown hair, or even a pimple. However, this is actually a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, this is good news for the countless people who have it as it means the infection will likely not cause serious problems. Or even noticeable problems. Simply put, if a disease is so mild you’re not even sure you have it, it’s clearly not the worst thing that could have befallen you.

But on the other hand, this is also one of the main reasons why the illness is so widespread. Herpes gets transmitted through contact with a person who is infected (and for HSV-1, the contact does not need to be sexual in nature) – if someone is not aware they are carrying the virus, it is less likely they’ll take the measures necessary to reduce the odds of spreading it.

And while many will avoid any serious issues, that is not always the case. Therefore, it is possible to unknowingly spread the virus to someone who will feel the brunt of it. Even the milder symptoms can be very uncomfortable, and there is always the chance of complications arising.

While the general symptoms of herpes are relatively similar, they can vary according to the part of the body that gets infected. This is also how medical experts categorize those infections. We will now cover the two most well-known types.

Oral Herpes

When the herpes simplex virus primarily affects the lip area, you are dealing with oral herpes. Another very popular name for this infection is cold sores. As you can guess from the name, sores and blisters are the primary symptoms of this illness.

Before these lesions, the skin will usually be itchy and reddish. Then, small blisters will appear, usually grouped together. After a while, they will break open and create a large sore. After that, the area will crust over and begin to heal. Two to four weeks, the symptoms should pass.

These are the telltale symptoms of oral herpes, but they will differ from person to person, as already mentioned. This infection can be an extremely painful experience for some, while others may not even notice it. Also, the symptoms are the most common around the lips, but they can also affect the broader area of the face.

Typically, HSV-1 is the cause of oral herpes, although it is also possible to get it from HSV-2. Type 1 herpes simplex virus does not require sexual contact in order to spread, and that is not how people usually get infected. As a matter of fact, most contract it during childhood – it can be from something as simple as getting a kiss from a relative.

Genital Herpes

Unlike its oral counterpart, genital herpes does normally require sexual contact in order to be transmitted. This gives it the classification of a sexually transmitted disease, and it is among the most common ones.

HSV-2 is the usual culprit, although genital herpes brought about by an HSV-1 infection is an increasingly common occurrence. Furthermore, women are more likely to contract the disease than men.

Just like with oral herpes, symptoms will not always appear. When they do, it typically starts with small blisters which rupture after a while. This creates ulcers, which can be very painful. Scabs will follow, and it should, once again, take between two and four weeks for the lesions to heal. Usually appearing around the genital area, the sores can also develop on the thighs and buttocks.


The most difficult thing to come to terms with for the people who have herpes is the fact that there is no cure. Once you get infected, it is a lifelong condition. For those who are asymptomatic, this is less of an issue (although they can still infect others). But for people who do exhibit symptoms, this makes the illness a recurring problem.

There are periods when herpes is active and periods when it remains dormant, and the illness will cycle between the two. The first time you show signs of the disease is usually the hardest part, with the symptoms being the most pronounced. After that, subsequent episodes will diminish in severity. They also become less frequent with age.

Finally, while it is not possible to cure herpes, you can manage the symptoms with antiviral drugs.


“What does herpes look like?” is a common question, particularly among people who have had numerous partners. Blisters and ulcers are the typical signs, but there is a lot more to this disease, as you have seen.

Incurable and widespread, it is a problem which affects many. Fortunately, the symptoms are usually mild. Nonetheless, it pays to take precautions and it might be a good idea to get tested even if you’re not showing the signs.