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Young man with glasses stroking his chin and wondering "Do I have herpes and not know it?"

Do I Have Herpes and Not Know It?

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on May 15, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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It might come as a surprise, but it’s possible to have herpes and not even know it. In fact, many people with herpes don’t know they have this sexually transmitted infection (STI or STD) because they don’t experience any symptoms. This is what’s known as asymptomatic herpes.

Easily check for STIs with our at-home STD test for men or STD test for women. Your secure, online results can tell you if you have 6 common sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis—even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms.

Here, you’ll learn more about herpes: what it is exactly, whether you can still spread it even if you have no symptoms, who is at risk, and more—so keep reading.

What Is Herpes and What Causes It?

Herpes is a very common STD caused by the herpes simplex virus, or HSV. There are two different types of herpes:

  • HSV-1 is a typical cause of cold sores or fever blisters that appear on the lips. This form of herpes spreads through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person and sometimes affects the genitals.

  • HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes, which can lead to symptoms like small blisters on the genitals, painful urination, swollen lymph nodes around the groin, and more. You can contract this virus through sexual contact with someone who has it. This HSV infection is highly contagious, and it can spread to you regardless of whether your partner has an open sore. If you are infected but don’t have symptoms, you have asymptomatic herpes.

After an initial infection, the herpes virus doesn’t go away. Instead, it lies dormant in the body before it can cause symptoms to reappear. Some people may experience a symptomatic recurrence multiple times a year, while others may go years between flare-ups. In the case of asymptomatic herpes, however, you may not have any noticeable symptoms at any point during the infection.

Are You Less Contagious if You Have Asymptomatic Herpes?

Some people believe you can’t spread asymptomatic genital herpes; this, however, is a myth. You can still spread the virus to others even if you have an asymptomatic infection—or if you aren’t currently showing symptoms because the virus is dormant.

Fortunately, whether or not a herpes infection causes symptoms, the risk of transmitting the virus can be significantly reduced by using condoms during sexual intercourse.

What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?

As with many STDs, people with herpes type 2 may not know they have a genital infection because they don’t have any noticeable symptoms. However, in a symptomatic infection, a person may experience the following signs:

  • Itching, pain, or tenderness in the genital area
  • Small red bumps or white blisters
  • Sores or ulcers that occur when the blisters rupture and ooze or bleed
  • Scabs that develop as the ulcers heal

If you’re experiencing symptoms like these, consider testing for herpes right away—and speak with your healthcare provider.

During a first herpes outbreak, a person may notice flu-like symptoms—including fever, headache, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes around the groin.

When you have recurrent genital herpes symptoms, the outbreaks tend to be less frequent and less severe after the initial infection. Before the sores reappear in a recurring outbreak, symptomatic patients may notice the following symptoms:

  • Burning, itching, or tingling where they first had the sores
  • Pain in the buttocks, legs, and/or lower back

How Common Is Herpes—and Who Is at Risk?

Both types of herpes are quite common. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that—globally—an estimated 67% of the population has HSV-1. As for HSV-2, estimates suggest that 13% of the population has it. Most of the people in both groups are asymptomatic and many do not know they have herpes.

Women tend to have a higher risk of HSV-2, the most common cause of genital herpes, compared to men. This is because transmission of the herpes virus occurs more effectively from men to women than vice versa. Having multiple sex partners also increases one’s risk of getting herpes.

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What Complications Are Connected With an Untreated Genital Herpes Infection?

Just as there are health risks associated with untreated chlamydia in men and women, there are also risks connected with untreated herpes—even in asymptomatic patients. Not only does the infection increase your likelihood of contracting and transmitting other STDs, but it can also lead to:

  • Difficulty urinating, due to inflammation of the urethra (the tube that carries urine from your bladder)
  • Itchy urethra in males
  • Infections in newborns exposed to the virus during a vaginal birth, which can severely harm the child’s health
  • Meningitis (an infection of the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, which occurs in rare cases)
  • Rectal inflammation (proctitis), especially in men who have sex with men

The best way to avoid these complications is to practice safe sex (such as consistently using condoms) and routinely screen for STDs. You can conveniently check for 6 common STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis from the privacy of your home with the Everlywell STD Test for men and women.

Herpes Diagnosis and Treatment

If you think you might have genital herpes, it’s a good idea to get tested. You can make an appointment with your healthcare provider or a clinic in your area—or you can take an at-home STD test.

While there is no cure for either herpes type, antiviral medications can effectively reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms. Medications can also minimize the risk of transmitting the herpes virus to someone else.

The Everlywell at-home STD test checks for 6 common STDs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. Your healthcare provider may consider your symptoms along with your test results to arrive at a diagnosis.

How Can You Prevent Herpes?

To reduce your risk of herpes, be sure you use protection (like a latex condom) whenever you have sex. If you or your partner is experiencing a herpes outbreak, talk with your healthcare provider about when you should resume sexual contact with each other.

If you have symptoms of HSV-2 or think you might have asymptomatic genital herpes, consider getting tested for herpes to know for sure.

The Everlywell at-home STD kit for men or women checks for 6 other common STDs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. Our STD test gives you confidential, online results only a few days after the lab receives your sample—making it a convenient testing option.

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  1. Genital herpes: How can you prevent the spread of herpes in sexual relationships? InformedHealth.org. URL. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  2. Genital herpes. Mayo CLinic. URL. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  3. Herpes simplex virus. World Health Organization. URL. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  4. Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  5. Genital HSV Infections. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed May 15, 2020.
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