Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), with more than half a million new cases in the United States annually. The infection can be caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 can cause sores on the mouth (cold sores) and genitals. HSV-2 only causes genital herpes.
This article will explore the symptoms of herpes infection and when these symptoms warrant a visit to a healthcare provider. You will also learn how it is transmitted and what can happen when infections go untreated.
Types of Herpes
Herpes viruses make up a large family of viruses, but there are only two types of herpes simplex viruses: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
HSV-1 is the type that can cause cold sores on the mouth or open sores on the genitals or anal area. It is spread primarily through oral contact. HSV-2 only causes genital sores but can be transmitted by oral, genital, or anal contact.
These infections can exist without symptoms; once acquired, you will have the virus for life. Anyone who lives with the herpes virus will have flare-ups, which occur more with HSV-2 and decrease over time. Most cases of herpes are transmitted by people with no symptoms at all or those who don’t know they are living with the virus.
How Common is Herpes?
Roughly 67% of people under age 50 worldwide have HSV-1 infections, and about 13% have HSV-2 infections.
Symptoms of Herpes Discharge
The primary symptoms of HSV-1 infection are burning and stinging of the cold sores caused by the virus. In HSV-2, many symptoms can appear with a flare-up, like:
A herpes infection in active stages can cause several symptoms, and the first infection is usually the most severe. A few symptoms can cause noticeable discharge.
Appearance and Odor
A common form of discharge you may experience during a herpes infection is leaking blood or fluid from the herpes blisters. This fluid can be bloody or whiteish in color. It does not usually have an odor.
Discharge in Women
In women, an infection in the genital area can lead to changes in vaginal discharge. Normal discharge is clear and milky and does not have a smell. The color or texture of your discharge can vary during your menstrual cycle, but the following changes might signal infection:
Infections like herpes can disrupt the natural balance of your vaginal fluid. If you notice any changes, you should see your healthcare provider and get tested for an official diagnosis and targeted treatment.
Discharge in Men
It can be challenging to notice changes in normal lubricating fluids since men’s genitals are more self-contained. Often, discharge from the penis is only noticeable during pre-ejaculation or ejaculation. If these fluids take on an odor, or you notice changes in texture and color, see your healthcare provider.
Changes in color or texture of genital discharge can be subtle and difficult to notice. Other herpes symptoms to watch for include red clusters of blisters, itching, burning, and pain in the genital area.
Timeline of Genital Herpes Outbreak
The first herpes outbreak typically occurs about two weeks after contracting the virus from an infected person. In rare cases, it can take months or years for you to develop symptoms of an infection.
The first outbreak is usually the worst; flare-ups generally lessen in severity over time. The herpes virus will never leave your body once you’re infected but will go through periods of remission and outbreak.
When you experience a herpes outbreak, symptoms could last for two to four weeks. Outbreaks usually become less frequent after your first infection, although people with a weak immune system may have more severe outbreaks more often.
Risks of Untreated Herpes
Herpes is a virus that will remain in your body for the rest of your life once you are infected. You won’t always have symptoms of your infection, but not knowing or acknowledging that you carry the virus can put you and others at risk.
You can transmit the herpes virus to others even when you don’t have symptoms, so it’s important to find out why you have symptoms like blisters and changes in discharge. Knowing your diagnosis can help you take steps to prevent transmission.
An untreated flare-up of herpes can be painful and uncomfortable, and could also lead to more serious complications such as:
Talking to Your Healthcare Provider About Herpes Discharge
Talking about changes in your genital health can be uncomfortable. Most people consider these topics private and have difficulty discussing them, especially with problems like a foul odor or blisters. There is also a stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections.
You can only confirm a diagnosis of herpes by testing the fluid from blisters or having a blood test done by a healthcare provider. They are trained to care for all types of bodies, organs, and diseases. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to protect your health and your sexual partners.
While most outbreaks can be managed without medical help, you should call your healthcare provider if your herpes outbreak comes with symptoms like:
- Severe headache
- Pain in your limbs
- Cold hands and fee
- Neck stiffness
These can be symptoms of a more severe infection or even meningitis.
Herpes Prevention and Treatment
Some of the best ways to prevent the spread of herpes are to:
- Abstain from sexual contact
- Know the infection status of your sexual partners
- Avoid sexual contact with infected partners
Barrier methods like condoms can reduce the transmission of the herpes virus, but do not prevent it. While herpes can be transmitted at any time it is most contagious during periods of active symptoms. You should avoid sexual contact if you or an infected partner are experiencing an outbreak.
What Helps With Discharge
Discharge can result from blisters and irritation in your genital area, so treating discharge can require different approaches.
To manage discharge from herpes blisters:
- Avoid scratching or rubbing the blisters
- Keep the area clean and dry
- Clean your hands before and after touching affected areas
- Avoid sexual or skin-to-skin contact in areas with open blisters
For vaginal discharge:
- Keep your genital area clean and free from irritation
- Wear cotton undergarments
- Avoid strong detergents
- Don’t wear tight clothing or undergarments
- Avoid hot tubs
- Don’t use douches or genital cleansing protects that contain perfumes or other irritants
- Avoid latex condoms or products with lubricants and spermicides
Your healthcare provider may also be able to prescribe you an antiviral medication to manage and decrease the duration of your outbreak.
The herpes simplex virus causes a lifelong infection that will go through periods of flare-ups and remission. When you have an active infection, discharge from herpes blisters or genitalia is common. If these symptoms develop and you have not been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection, you should see your healthcare provider for testing and diagnosis.
A Word From Verywell
Living with herpes can be difficult, and it’s something you will have to deal with for your whole life once you acquire the infection. Discharge can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, and herpes blisters might itch or cause pain. Unlike other STIs, it’s rare for herpes to cause severe or fatal consequences. Talk to your healthcare provider if blisters or genital discharge come with other symptoms like fever, and be sure to talk to your sexual partners about STIs before contact.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the texture of herpes discharge?
Vaginal discharge with a herpes infection can become thick and even appear clotted.
How long does herpes discharge last during an outbreak?
Vaginal and penile discharge can change for a number of reasons. In general, symptoms of a herpes outbreak usually go away in a few weeks.
Should you apply topicals to an outbreak?
Talk to your healthcare provider about the best medications to use with a herpes infection. Generally, you should just try to keep the area clean and dry. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medications like creams or ointments.