There are two types of herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 more commonly causes infections around the mouth while HSV-2 more commonly causes genital infections. They are transmitted by direct contact with body fluids or lesions of an infected individual. Transmission may still occur when symptoms are not present. Genital herpes is classified as a sexually transmitted infection. It may be spread to an infant during childbirth. After infection, the viruses are transported along sensory nerves to the nerve cell bodies, where they reside lifelong. Causes of recurrence may include: decreased immune function, stress, and sunlight exposure. Oral and genital herpes is usually diagnosed based on the presenting symptoms. The diagnosis may be confirmed by viral culture or detecting herpes DNA in fluid from blisters. Testing the blood for antibodies against the virus can confirm a previous infection but will be negative in new infections.
A scary finding is that more cases of genital herpes than ever before are now being caused by HSV-1 (the type most people assume only causes mouth sores), and about 85 percent of people with genital herpes don’t even know it. (7) Studies show that about 50 percent of the new genital herpes infections in young adults are due to HSV-1 and about 40 percent in older adults. The fact that most people don’t ever find out they’re infected is one of the reasons that transmission rates are steadily climbing.
Although the cause is unknown, outbreaks are often associated with periods of weakened immune systems, skin wounds, menstruation, fever, nerve damage, tissue damage from surgery, or exposure to extreme climate situations. A genital herpes outbreak or episode occurs when the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus is reactivated from its dormant stage. Genital herpes is an incurable disease, and once you contract it, you may experience outbreaks throughout your lifetime. Those who are experiencing their first herpes episode of genital herpes can expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks within a year. Over time these recurrences usually decrease in frequency and severity. The first outbreak of herpes is often the longest outbreak experienced. After that, short and inconsistent episodes can be managed and treated with antiviral medication.
Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.
Although it's rare, pregnant women can pass on the herpes infection to their child. This can result in a serious and sometimes deadly infection in the baby. That's why taking steps to prevent an outbreak at time of delivery is recommended starting at 34 weeks into the pregnancy. If you have signs of an active viral infection when it's time to deliver, your doctor will likely recommend a cesarean section for delivery.
Herpes sores follow a similar cyclical pattern and appear first like pimples that turn into small vesicles. Then, the skin becomes crusty, and eventually a scab is formed. It can take up to several weeks for the lesions to heal, during which time there may be one outbreak followed by another. Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of an outbreak, such as: asthma medication, lack of sleep, stress, decreased immunity and ultraviolet rays.
You may have concerns about how genital herpes will impact your overall health, sex life, and relationships. It is best for you to talk to a health care provider about those concerns, but it also is important to recognize that while herpes is not curable, it can be managed with medication. Daily suppressive therapy (i.e., daily use of antiviral medication) for herpes can also lower your risk of spreading genital herpes to your sex partner. Be sure to discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider. Since a genital herpes diagnosis may affect how you will feel about current or future sexual relationships, it is important to understand how to talk to sexual partners about STDsExternal.
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.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.