Written and peer-reviewed by physicians—but use at your own risk. Read our disclaimer.

banner image


Trusted medical answers—in seconds.

Get access to 1,000+ medical articles with instant search
and clinical tools.

Try free for 5 days

Herpes simplex virus infections

Last updated: August 10, 2020


Herpes simplex virus infections may be caused by two virus genotypes: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Worldwide seroprevalence is high, with antibodies detectable in over 90% of the population. Of these cases, approx. 60% are caused by HSV-1. The most common infections are labial and genital herpes, which present with painful ulcerations. Two further conditions, seen especially in children, are herpetic gingivostomatitis and herpetic whitlow. While herpetic gingivostomatitis is characterized by painful lesions of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa, herpetic whitlow causes blisters on the fingers with pronounced regional lymphadenopathy. In individuals with underlying dermatological conditions, infection with HSV can cause eczema herpeticum, resulting in painful erosions spread diffusely over the head and upper body. However, the majority of primary infections remain asymptomatic, while recurrent infections present with the typical manifestations. The diagnosis of HSV infections is usually confirmed through viral cultures, but may also be based on detection of HSV DNA in PCR, or multinucleated giant cells in Tzanck smears. Treatment consists mainly of topical or oral acyclovir; IV administration may be needed in critical cases, such as HSV infection in immunocompromised patients.

General information

  • Prevalence: More than 90% of the world's population over the age of 40 carries HSV.
  • Types
  • Transmission
    • Direct contact with mucosal tissue or secretions of another infected person
    • Infection with HSV-1 usually is acquired in childhood via saliva.
    • HSV-2 is mostly spread through genital contact and should, therefore, raise suspicion for sexual abuse if found in children.
    • Perinatal transmission (e.g., during childbirth if the mother is symptomatic) is more common for HSV-2.
  • Type of infection
    • Primary infection
      • Mostly asymptomatic (up to 80% of cases, but virus is still shed)
      • If symptomatic, the infection is often sudden and severe with systemic symptoms (e.g., fever, malaise, myalgias, and headaches)[1]
    • Reactivation of infection
      • Frequency and severity vary individually; symptoms are usually less severe than in primary infection.
      • Often at the same site as primary infection


Labial herpes (herpes labialis)

Genital herpes (herpes genitalis)

  • Pathogen: HSV-2, HSV-1 (less common)
  • Incubation period: 2–7 days
  • Clinical findings
    • Most patients are asymptomatic
    • Genitals: redness, swelling, tingling, pain, pruritus
    • Possibly unusual vaginal discharge
    • Painful lymphadenopathy in the groin area
    • After several days,punched-out” lesions may appear that later ulcerate.
      • Lesions may appear as single or disseminated, painful red bumps or white vesicles.
      • They are typically located on or around the genitals and anus.
    • Recurrence is common.
  • See “Diagnostics” and "Treatment" below.
  • For genital herpes during pregnancy, see congenital herpes simplex virus infection

Herpetic gingivostomatitis

Eczema herpeticum

Eczema herpeticum is considered a dermatological emergency and treatment with oral or IV acyclovir must be initiated quickly!

Herpetic whitlow

  • Pathogen: HSV-1 in 60% of cases; HSV-2 in 40% of cases (in the adult population)
  • Etiology
    • Direct contact with infected secretions through a break in the skin, e.g., torn cuticle
    • Main groups:
      • Children; (via sucking of thumb/fingers (may have a history of labial herpes)
      • Health care workers exposed to oral secretions (e.g., dentists)
  • Incubation period: 2–20 days
  • Clinical features
  • Differential diagnoses: paronychia, cellulitis, felon
  • See “Diagnostics” and "Treatment" below.

Surgical treatment is not indicated because it may cause severe complications (e.g., bacterial superinfection, systemic spread, herpes encephalitis)!

Other HSV infections


Diagnosis is primarily based on clinical features, with confirmation through the following tests:

Smear your herpes all over the TANK”: Herpes is detected by TzANcK smear.

Resources: [2]


Depending on the site, type, and severity of HSV-1 infection, antiviral drugs are administered either topically or systemically. In most cases of recurrent infection, topical and/or symptomatic treatment is sufficient.

Antiviral treatment

  • Effect
    • Decrease in duration and severity of infection; (most effective if therapy is initiated within 72 hours of onset of infection)
    • Reduction of viral shedding
    • However, recurrence cannot be prevented.
  • Agents
  • Duration: 7–10 days
  • Prophylaxis: indicated in the case of frequent or severe relapses; in patients with prodromal symptoms
    • Long-term suppressive therapy with (val)acyclovir

Early treatment of herpes infections is essential to prevent complications because antiviral drugs only inhibit the virus during its replication phase!

Symptomatic treatment


  • Use of condoms, gloves
  • Consider isolation of hospitalized patients with shedding lesions


  1. Albrecht MA. Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis of genital herpes simplex virus infection. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/epidemiology-clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis-of-genital-herpes-simplex-virus-infection?search=genital%20herpes&source=search_result&selectedTitle=2%E2%88%BC133&usage_type=default&display_rank=2.Last updated: December 13, 2018. Accessed: August 6, 2020.
  2. Miller JM, Binnicker MJ, Campbell S, et al. A Guide to Utilization of the Microbiology Laboratory for Diagnosis of Infectious Diseases: 2018 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American Society for Microbiology. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2018; 67 (6): p.e1-e94. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciy381 . | Open in Read by QxMD