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What Is the Incubation Period of Herpes?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2014
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The incubation period of herpes refers to time that elapses between when people get or are exposed to the illness and when it causes symptoms. This can vary depending on the individual. It’s been noted that some people develop primary symptoms within a day or two of exposure, but, at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes the condition doesn’t emerge for up to a month. In average cases, those exposed to herpes simplex virus I or II, which cause cold sores or genital infections, are most likely to show symptoms of an infection within two weeks of contracting it. Medical anecdotes suggest that occasionally, either primary infection isn’t noticed or some people may have a much longer period of dormancy and might not show the disease until years after contraction, but this is very rare.

As the herpes infection builds up in the body for the first time, it will generally emerge as a primary infection, which tends to be more severe than subsequent infections. Early symptoms often don’t involve any form of rash or cold sore. Women with genital herpes may notice burning or difficulty urinating. People may feel run down and achy, a slight fever could be present, and the glands are often swollen. These symptoms are followed by development of one or more lesions, usually one to six days later. Some people also perceive tingling or pain where the lesion eventually occurs.

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For most people subsequent herpes infections are not as severe, though they are still uncomfortable. Healthy people with these infections live with varying cycles of the virus, where it moves from dormant to active periods. In active periods, the incubation period of herpes is referred to as the time between prodromal symptoms and development of lesions. Most people will have a few symptoms that herald activation of the illness like tingling or pain or discharge from the genitals and, for women, pain or burning during urination often occurs.

The specific incubation period of herpes that isn’t primary, or time between prodromal symptoms and lesion appearance is also variable. Usually average time ranges from a couple of days to about a week. As people get to know what these infections feel like, with awareness they can often get skilled at determining when an infection will occur. The virus sheds during the prodromal period, and recognizing its signs helps people take precautions to protect others from infection.

Incubation period of herpes as it relates to the virus cycling isn’t always predictable and it’s hard to predict how often the virus will become active again. Frequently there is expectation of an average of four infections the first year after contracting herpes, but the specific time between infections can be variable. Additionally, many people note a decline in number of infections per year the longer they have the virus, but this can change if they fall into poor health or undergo extreme stress.

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