Although it’s not caused by either the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus, herpes zoster falls under the umbrella of herpes diseases. Also known as shingles, it’s an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, and is characterized by the development of painful skin rashes on one side of the face or body.23 These rashes are red patches of fluid-filled blisters that tend to crack easily.24,25
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.”
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.
Cullins explains that the first, or initial, outbreak is usually the worst, and “over time when you have recurrent episodes, you may not have systemic symptoms” or frequent symptoms. But everyone’s body and immune system reacts to the virus differently; while some people may never have many outbreaks, other people may be more chronically symptomatic. The National Institutes of Health indicate that infrequent outbreaks, around one or two per year, are not uncommon.
Consequently, you may already have the virus. A doctor can determine this with a blood test for Herpes 2 (Ig), a type-specific immunoglobulin. If you are already infected, you won’t be at risk for a new infection — you and your boyfriend already share the virus. But knowing your herpes status will tell you whether you are capable of infecting a future partner.
Herpes virus type 4 is also called Epstein-Barr virus. It typically causes infectious mononucleosis, a “kissing” disease. Symptoms include skin rash, fever, sore throat and swollen lymph glands. The virus can be involved in cancers like nasopharyngeal cancer. Herpes virus type 4 is contagious through bodily fluids, including saliva. Kissing, coughing, sneezing, or sharing utensils can make the infection spread.
Particularly when someone is on suppressive antiviral medication and practicing safer sex, risk of transmission can be greatly reduced. Cullins suggests female condoms (condoms that go inside the vagina and cover most of the vulva, though it's important to note that not all people with vaginas are female) to provide the most protection against transmission, though condoms that go over the penis will protect what they cover.
A person may show symptoms within days after contracting genital herpes, or it may take weeks, months, or years. Some people may have a severe outbreak within days after contracting the virus while others may have a first outbreak so mild that they do not notice it. Because of these possibilities, it can be difficult for people to know when and from whom they may have contracted the virus.