While some people realize that they have genital herpes, many do not. It is estimated that one in five persons in the United States has genital herpes; however, as many as 90 percent are unaware that they have the virus. This is because many people have very mild symptoms that go unrecognized or are mistaken for another condition or no symptoms at all.
Herpes infection of the genital tract is a sexually transmitted infection (sexually transmitted disease or STD). Like in the mouth area, herpes symptoms and signs include a painful, blistering rash around or on the genital or rectal areas. These lesions open and result in painful sores that can take two to four weeks to heal. The sores can sometimes cause painful urination. Recurrent outbreaks are typical, and the time between outbreaks varies among affected people and even within the same individual. Prior to an outbreak, a tingling, burning, or itching sensation may be present on the area of involved skin.
Human herpes virus 3 (HHV3) is also called varicella-zoster virus. HHV3 causes chickenpox. It can also cause a recurrent virus infection of the skin, which is called herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles occurs when dormant varicella-zoster virus from an initial bout of chickenpox becomes reactivated. Like its close relative, HHV1, herpes zoster likes to infect skin cells and nerve cells. This virus may also recur along nerve fibre pathways, causing multiple sores where nerve fibres end on skin cells. Because an entire group of nerve cells is often affected, shingles is generally much more severe than a recurrence of herpes simplex. The lesions generally appear in a band-like or belt-like pattern occurring on one side of the body and are often accompanied by itching, tingling, or even severe pain. Healing usually occurs in 2 to 4 weeks, and scars may remain. Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles where the pain associated with the infection can persist for months and even years. Most people who experience shingles once do not experience it again.
Although there is no cure for herpes, treatments can relieve the symptoms. Medication can decrease the pain related to an outbreak and can shorten healing time. They can also decrease the total number of outbreaks. Drugs including Famvir, Zovirax, and Valtrex are among the drugs used to treat the symptoms of herpes. Warm baths may relieve the pain associated with genital sores.
According to Cullins, there are no standardized guidelines from the CDC for suppressive therapy through medication, but it is an option that people with HSV should talk to their healthcare providers about. “If a person knows they have had herpes in the past that has affected their genitals, they can take suppressive therapy — for example, 500 mg of valacyclovir daily.” While it won’t prevent outbreaks, it will prevent asymptomatic virus shedding. Preventing exposure to the virus through both medication and a physical barrier can be very effective.
If you have herpes, you should talk to your sex partner(s) and let him or her know that you do and the risk involved. Using condoms may help lower this risk but it will not get rid of the risk completely. Having sores or other symptoms of herpes can increase your risk of spreading the disease. Even if you do not have any symptoms, you can still infect your sex partners.
Once a person is infected, there are no symptoms for anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks. This is known as the incubation period and is the time during which the virus multiplies profusely. The first symptoms that are seen are the small fluid-filled blisters known as vesicles. This arises as the virus starts destroying cells at the site and causes intense localized inflammation. These small vesicles or sometimes the larger bullae may either burst resulting in ulcer or heal completely with no scarring. The virus may also travel from the site of infection and “hides” by the sensory dorsal root. Here it remains latent until is it is reactivated.
The frequency and severity of recurrent outbreaks vary greatly between people. Some individuals' outbreaks can be quite debilitating, with large, painful lesions persisting for several weeks, while others experience only minor itching or burning for a few days. Some evidence indicates genetics play a role in the frequency of cold sore outbreaks. An area of human chromosome 21 that includes six genes has been linked to frequent oral herpes outbreaks. An immunity to the virus is built over time. Most infected individuals experience fewer outbreaks and outbreak symptoms often become less severe. After several years, some people become perpetually asymptomatic and no longer experience outbreaks, though they may still be contagious to others. Immunocompromised individuals may experience longer, more frequent, and more severe episodes. Antiviral medication has been proven to shorten the frequency and duration of outbreaks. Outbreaks may occur at the original site of the infection or in proximity to nerve endings that reach out from the infected ganglia. In the case of a genital infection, sores can appear at the original site of infection or near the base of the spine, the buttocks, or the back of the thighs. HSV-2-infected individuals are at higher risk for acquiring HIV when practicing unprotected sex with HIV-positive persons, in particular during an outbreak with active lesions.
Primary orofacial herpes is readily identified by examination of persons with no previous history of lesions and contact with an individual with known HSV infection. The appearance and distribution of sores is typically presents as multiple, round, superficial oral ulcers, accompanied by acute gingivitis. Adults with atypical presentation are more difficult to diagnose. Prodromal symptoms that occur before the appearance of herpetic lesions help differentiate HSV symptoms from the similar symptoms of other disorders, such as allergic stomatitis. When lesions do not appear inside the mouth, primary orofacial herpes is sometimes mistaken for impetigo, a bacterial infection. Common mouth ulcers (aphthous ulcer) also resemble intraoral herpes, but do not present a vesicular stage.
Oral herpes (HSV-1) infection (or exposure without noticeable infection) is common. About 65% of the U.S. population has detectable antibodies to HSV-1 by age 40. This article will focus on HSV-1, or oral herpes, not on HSV-2, also commonly known as genital herpes. Genital herpes is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In addition, HSV-2 virus should not be confused with human papillomavirus (HPV), the cause of genital warts, and some cervical and other cancer types.
Jamie*, 29, is HSV-positive and contracted herpes from her husband. But, she explains, “He only had one outbreak when he was young and that was it. So he didn't realize what it was.” Jamie was infected three years into their relationship simply because he had outbreaks that infrequently. She says, “I was worried he had cheated on me, but then found similar stories online, and our outbreak patterns underscore that what happened is very possible.”
Herpes has been known for at least 2,000 years. Emperor Tiberius is said to have banned kissing in Rome for a time due to so many people having cold sores. In the 16th-century Romeo and Juliet, blisters "o'er ladies' lips" are mentioned. In the 18th century, it was so common among prostitutes that it was called "a vocational disease of women". The term 'herpes simplex' appeared in Richard Boulton's A System of Rational and Practical Chirurgery in 1713, where the terms 'herpes miliaris' and 'herpes exedens' also appeared. Herpes was not found to be a virus until the 1940s.
As of 2017, there is not currently a herpes vaccine available to prevent HSV-1 or HSV-2. (There is a vaccine available for another virus, herpes zoster; however, despite the similar name, it actually refers to the shingles virus. And, in fact, shingles occurs due to the reactivation of yet another virus, varicella zoster, which causes chicken pox.)
For mild infections, self-care may be adequate for treatment. Other treatments termed "home remedies" are not considered cures but can ease or hasten recovery. These remedies include aloe vera gel, cornstarch paste, and tea or mint leaves. A cool compress may reduce pain. There is no cure for the infection. People with severe infection symptoms, especially children, should be evaluated by a medical caregiver.
If you think you have or have been exposed to herpes you should see your primary care provider for follow up, screening, and possible treatment. Many providers today will not test unless you have symptoms of an outbreak, as often tests come back as false positive and the CDC has concluded that false positives cause psychological trauma to those tested. There is much debate on if you should test without symptoms or not, others say it is unethical to not be aware of your current STD status and risk infecting other people.
There’s herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). “HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different but closely related viruses,” says Dr. Christine Johnston, MPH, who is the Associate Medical Director of the Virology Research Clinic at the University of Washington. Johnston explains that both are transmitted through close mucosal or skin contact with infected secretions. HSV-1 primarily causes oral outbreaks, also known as cold sores, and HSV-2 usually causes genital outbreaks. But HSV-1 can also cause genital outbreaks through oral-to-genital contact, according to the CDC. According to Johnston, genital HSV-1 is less likely to recur than HSV-2, and there’s less asymptomatic shedding (transmitting the virus without realizing it) with HSV-1 than with HSV-2.
“Herpes is caused by sexual intimacy and contact with a person who is actively shedding the herpes virus,” says Cullins. If you have HSV-1, that shedding could happen through the mouth or a cold sore, which means that the virus can be transmitted through kissing, or just sharing a drink. If you have herpes that affects the genitals, it can be transmitted from sharing sex toys, grinding, or even mutual masturbation — any activity where the virus can be transmitted from one person to another through skin-to-skin or mucosal contact.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
Human herpes virus 2 (HHV2) is also called herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2). It typically causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection. However, it can also cause cold sores in the facial area. Like HHV1, the HHV2 infection is contagious and is spread by skin-to-skin contact. The main route of transmission is through sexual contact, as the virus does not survive very long outside the body.
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The annual incidence in Canada of genital herpes due to HSV-1 and HSV-2 infection is not known (for a review of HSV-1/HSV-2 prevalence and incidence studies worldwide, see Smith and Robinson 2002). As many as one in seven Canadians aged 14 to 59 may be infected with herpes simplex type 2 virus and more than 90 per cent of them may be unaware of their status, a new study suggests. In the United States, it is estimated that about 1,640,000 HSV-2 seroconversions occur yearly (730,000 men and 910,000 women, or 8.4 per 1,000 persons).
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
If you have recently made it through a first episode that consisted of full-blown symptoms, you know something about signs and symptoms already. The good news is that the first episode is almost always the worst that HSV throws your way. Signs and symptoms of recurrent episodes (when they occur) tend to be milder and heal much more quickly, typically within two to twelve days.
Canker sores are sometimes thought to be caused by HSV, but this is not true. Canker sores occur only inside the mouth, on the tongue, and on the soft palate (roof of mouth), not on skin surfaces. Although they reoccur, they are not contagious, usually are self-limiting, and have almost no complications. Canker sores are caused by substances that irritate the lining of the mouth.
STI and sexual health expert Michael Asher (who is also CEO at Better2know, the company behind the STI testing for E4's The Sex Clinic) explains what we all should know about oral herpes. He says, "With 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 being infected with HSV1, it is incredibly common and just a single exposure to the virus can lead to infection."