Daily Health

How Long Does a Herpes Outbreak Last?

If you’ve just found out you’re living with herpes, you might be feeling insecure, sad, or generally anxious. And you might also be anxious to get it cleared up so you can move on with life.

There has been a lot of stigma around herpes, which might keep individuals from talking about it or seeking proper treatment. But you don’t need to feel shame at all. With advancement in research and treatments, you can shorten or even stop your herpes outbreaks. 

It might also help to know that you’re not alone. According to the World Health Organization, around 491 million people between the ages of 15 – 49 have a herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) infection and around 3.7 billion people under 50 have a herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) infection. In Canada, one in seven people carries the HSV-2 virus, a lot of whom don’t even know. 

The important thing to remember is you are not alone! Thankfully, there is help. 

What is herpes?

You’ve probably heard of herpes before, but you may not know exactly what it is. Herpes is caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This virus can cause painful ulcers around the affected area and is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). 

The two most common types of herpes are oral, which is caused by the HSV-1 virus which in turn causes cold sores; and genital herpes, which is caused by the HSV-2 virus. 

Herpes is a lifelong condition, but this doesn’t mean you have to suffer. With the right information and treatment, you can manage your symptoms and carry on with your life. 

Despite the common myth that herpes can only be transmitted during an outbreak, this isn’t true. While herpes is most contagious when symptoms are present, the virus can still be transmitted to others when you are asymptomatic. This is why it’s important to consult your healthcare practitioner and learn about how to talk to your partner(s) about herpes. 

To find out more about the facts of herpes, check out this article on herpes 101

Symptoms of herpes

The symptoms of herpes will depend on which HSV strain you have. However, both types do have some common symptoms and generally, the first outbreak will be the worst. But with proper treatment, any future outbreaks will be significantly milder, and you may not even have outbreaks at all. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Painful blisters around the affected area
  • Tingling, itching, or burning around the affected area
  • Initial outbreak symptoms can include fever, headaches, and other flu-like symptoms. 

Oral herpes: HSV-1

As mentioned, HSV-1, or oral herpes, can appear on the mouth, throat, tongue, on or around the lips, and is often known as ‘cold sores.’ These are small, fluid-filled blisters that can be quite painful and last up to 2 weeks. 

Genital herpes: HSV-2

Genital herpes, or HSV-2, is similar to HSV-1 and occurs around the genital area, including thighs, groin, buttock, and anal region. Like oral herpes, genital herpes produces painful blisters. 

It’s important to note that both the HSV-1 virus can also be transmitted to the genitals and alternately, the HSV-2 virus can be transmitted to the oral area. 

Stages of herpes outbreaks

Like any other infection, every case is different. The duration of a herpes outbreak will depend on factors such as:

  • Your individual immune system
  • How many outbreaks you’ve had in the past
  • Treatment history

Keep in mind that no matter your history or treatment, there’s help. 

The stages of a herpes outbreak can last between two and 14 days and can be broken down into stages:

Stage 1: Prodrome

In this first stage, initial symptoms will begin as the virus starts to activate in the skin, causing tingling, itching, or pain. 

Stage 2: Skin redness

As the infection takes hold, the skin around the affected area will become reddened. With genital herpes, this may be more difficult to notice if the affected area is inside the vagina. However, vaginal discharge and painful urination will most likely occur. 

Stage 3: Lesion formation

In this stage, sores will begin to appear around the affected area. In HSV-1, this will appear as ‘cold sores.’ In HSV-2, these sores will look like blisters. In both cases, the sores will fill with fluid and become very painful. 

Stage 4: Development of lesions

This is the stage where herpes is most contagious as the lesions or sores will continue to grow and eventually burst, releasing fluid around the affected area. The lesions can stay open and continue to release fluid until they start scabbing.

Stage 5: Scabbing

This is when healing is starting, although it may not seem like it. Sores will stop releasing fluid, dry up, and scab over. 

Stage 6: Healing

Stage 6 is when healing really gets going (and so does the relief!). Just like any cut or scrape, the scabs will eventually fall off as the skin underneath heals. However, sometimes a scab doesn’t form at all but the sores will just fade. 

What can you do about a herpes outbreak?

Despite herpes being a lifelong infection, there are treatments that can reduce the number of outbreaks and give symptom relief. Sometimes treatments can actually stop outbreaks from happening altogether. However, it’s still important to remember that there is still a risk of transmission between outbreaks. 

The faster you treat a herpes outbreak, the quicker it will resolve. Herpes medications are most effective when taken within 48 hours of first symptoms. 

Some medication options are:

These three medications work basically the same, and tend to speed up healing time by about one or two days. Acyclovir is a topical ointment used to treat lesions and works on both oral and genital herpes. 

If you’re experiencing considerable pain, these medications can be taken with painkillers. For some individuals, you may need your healthcare practitioner to prescribe a painkiller, but some individuals can manage their pain with over-the-counter pain medications. 

You can also apply a cold compress to the affected area, wear loose clothing and underwear that breathes (cotton is great), and make sure to keep the lesion(s) clean and dry. 

Don’t forget your mental health

Living and dating with herpes can come with unique stressors. Arming yourself with the right tools and information can help both your physical and mental health — and help you feel better about your sex life. 

Learning how to cope with your diagnosis can also mean seeking mental health support. The good news is, that support is available. 

In Toronto and Vancouver, there are:

If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s important that you talk to your healthcare provider. You can also speak to a counsellor about your herpes diagnosis at the Ontario Sexual Health Infoline at 1-800-668-2437. 

If you’re ever in an emergency, call 911 right away. 

Take control of your health with Felix

Taking control of your health means empowering yourself. Seeking out resources and support groups to help reduce shame can go a long way in improving both your physical and mental health. Talk to a Felix healthcare practitioner today and take control of your health.

WRITTEN BY
Felix Team
Updated on:
November 20, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe
Family Physician, MD, CCFP
Disclaimer

The views expressed here are those of the author and, as with the rest of the content on Active Ingredients, are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider.

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