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Herpes is a common infection that the herpes simplex virus causes. One of the main symptoms is a rash of blisters that doctors sometimes refer to as a herpes rash.

A herpes rash usually develops on the genitals or around the mouth but can occur nearly anywhere on the body.

There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV) that cause a skin rash in different areas:

  • HSV-1, or type 1, which typically causes orolabial herpes. It spreads in the saliva and tends to affect the area around the mouth and nose.
  • HSV-2, or type 2, which typically causes genital herpes and usually spreads through sexual contact. The rash appears around the genitals. Sometimes it is also responsible for orolabial herpes.

This article will explain the symptoms of a herpes skin rash and explore its causes and treatments. It will also examine some other possible causes of skin complaints that may look like herpes.

a woman with herpes skin rash around her mouth. Image credit: Jojo, 2006Share on Pinterest
Herpes skin rash is common around the mouth but can appear anywhere on the body.
Image credit: Jojo, 2006

Herpes causes small sores to appear on the skin. These usually develop around the mouth and nose, but they can appear nearly anywhere on the body, including the fingers. Where the rash appears depends on where a person has acquired the infection.

The first sign of a herpes outbreak tends to be a tingling, burning, or itching sensation in the area that it is affecting. This initial sign might occur a day or so before the sores appear.

The sores can be tender, painful, and tingly. They look like clusters of small, fluid filled blisters that become pustules. For a few days to a week, they will break open, ooze fluid, and form a crust before healing over. The rash typically lasts from 7–10 days.

The first time a rash appears, it may last for different lengths of time, depending on the type of herpes:

  • oral herpes symptoms clear up in 2–3 weeks
  • genital herpes symptoms clear up in 2–6 weeks

When someone experiences a herpes outbreak for the first time, they may also suffer some or all of the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • swollen and red gums
  • swollen lymph glands

Once the virus is in the body, it invades the nerves that supply the area of the skin where it infected and stays there for life. There is no cure for the virus, which tends to reactivate and cause the symptoms of herpes from time to time.

The first outbreak is usually the worst. While the symptoms of the virus do tend to come back every so often forever, they are not typically as severe.

Learn more about what herpes looks like, with pictures, here.

Herpes rashes tend to look like clusters of small, fluid-filled blisters on a small area of the body.

Other skin conditions that may resemble herpes include:

Contact dermatitis

An allergic reaction to an irritant can cause allergic contact dermatitis. Common irritants include antibiotic creams, cosmetics, shampoo, and perfumes. In babies, contact dermatitis may develop in the diaper area.

Contact dermatitis can cause redness, swelling, and even blistering in the area it affects.

Shingles

shingles rash on person s shoulderShare on Pinterest
A person with shingles may experience a rash of fluid filled blisters.

Shingles causes a rash of blisters to appear on the skin. The same virus that leads to chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus, causes shingles.

The first sign of shingles tends to be a severe burning or tingling pain on one side of the body. A rash of fluid filled blisters follows a few days to a week later. The blisters tend to appear in one area of the body, most commonly one side of the trunk near the waistline. They may be tender to the touch or painful.

The condition usually clears up within 3–5 weeks or sometimes less.

Scabies

An infestation of a microscopic parasite known as the human itch mite, or Sarcoptes scabiei causes scabies. The mite burrows into the skin to lay its eggs and deposits its waste products, or feces. Its presence causes an extremely itchy rash that looks like little pimples, creating red, scaly areas on the skin.

Doctors use a class of medicines they call scabicides to treat the infestation. These are only available by prescription.

There are two types of HSV virus that causes herpes. While closely related, people contract them in different ways, although they both spread through body fluids and close human contact. The person who is the carrier of the virus does not need to be experiencing symptoms to be contagious.

HSV-1 or oral herpes

Most carriers of HSV-1 contracted it when they were infants or children. People can be spread through:

  • skin-to-skin contact
  • kissing
  • sharing items such as lip balm, tableware, or toothbrushes

HSV-2 or genital herpes

Sexual contact tends to be how HSV-2 spreads. HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes, and it can spread in saliva during oral sex. The HSV-2 virus can also pass on to a baby during childbirth.

Both forms of the virus enter the nerve cells of the body where they remain for life. The virus tends to lay dormant, or asleep, in the cells until something wakes it up and causes an outbreak of symptoms.

Factors that can lead to an outbreak include:

  • emotional stress
  • illness
  • fever
  • exposure to the sun
  • menstruation in females
  • surgery

There is no cure for herpes, but the sores will usually clear up on their own within a few weeks.

Treatments that will shorten the duration of the outbreak and ease the symptoms are available.

If a person gets frequent outbreaks, their doctor may recommend taking a pill every day for prevention reasons. This is known as "prophylaxis."

Antiviral creams or ointments can relieve the burning, itching, or tingling. Antiviral pills can speed up the healing process. Both types of medicine tend to contain the same active ingredients. They include:

  • acyclovir
  • famciclovir
  • valacyclovir

People can get herpes medication from a doctor or pharmacist. Over-the-counter options are also available online.

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If a person with a weakened immune system experiences a herpes skin rash, they should speak to their doctor.

For otherwise healthy people, a herpes skin rash is not usually anything to worry about unduly. The sores can be painful and uncomfortable but typically go away by themselves. Medicines to treat them are available from drug stores.

The virus can cause complications in some people. Anyone with a long term health condition or weakened immune system who thinks they may have herpes should speak to a doctor.

People living with cancer, HIV, or AIDS, or who have recently had an organ transplant should seek urgent medical help if they think they may have herpes.

Anyone who suspects something other than herpes, such as dermatitis, shingles, or scabies, is causing their skin rash can talk to their doctor about a diagnosis.

Herpes is a common virus that can cause a rash of blistering sores on the skin. These tend to develop either around the mouth or genitals but can appear almost anywhere on the body.

There is no cure for the virus, and carriers tend to suffer outbreaks at various times throughout their life.

The clusters of fluid filled blisters may be unsightly and can be painful, but they are usually harmless. Antiviral treatments that can ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of an outbreak are available in drug stores.