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 is contracted through direct contact with an active lesion or body fluid of an infected person. Herpes transmission occurs between discordant partners; a person with a history of infection (HSV seropositive) can pass the virus to an HSV seronegative person. Herpes simplex virus 2 is typically contracted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, but can also be contracted by exposure to infected saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or the fluid from herpetic blisters. To infect a new individual, HSV travels through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Even microscopic abrasions on mucous membranes are sufficient to allow viral entry.
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.
If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, it is very important for you to go to prenatal care visits. Tell your doctor if you have ever had symptoms of, or have been diagnosed with, genital herpes. Also tell your doctor if you have ever been exposed to genital herpes. There is some research that suggests that genital herpes infection may lead to miscarriage, or could make it more likely for you to deliver your baby too early.
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Diagnosing herpes is made much easier if you present to your clinician at the time that the rash is present and if possible, we can take a sample from that to be sent for Herpes PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) studies to confirm the diagnosis. Advanced medical investigative techniques such as this will allow us to differentiate type one from type two herpes regardless of the nature and distribution of the rash.
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.
However, asymptomatic carriers of the HSV-2 virus are still contagious. In many infections, the first symptom people will have of their own infections is the horizontal transmission to a sexual partner or the vertical transmission of neonatal herpes to a newborn at term. Since most asymptomatic individuals are unaware of their infection, they are considered at high risk for spreading HSV.
To reduce the chance of acquiring HSV-1, avoid touching saliva, skin, or mucous membranes of people who have HSV-1 lesions. Prevention of genital HSV may be accomplished by latex condoms, but protection is never 100%. Spermicides do not protect against HSV. Some clinicians recommend using dental dams (small latex squares) during oral sex, but like condoms, they are not 100% protective.
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.
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."
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 30% of pregnant women in the United States have genital HSV. During pregnancy, people are immunocompromised so that their body doesn’t fight the fetus as a foreign invader. And when a person’s immune system is weakened, they are more likely to have herpes outbreaks. According to Cullins, “Pregnancy is the time period when [a provider] really wants to know whether or not the person has had herpes in the past,” so they can protect the pregnant person and their infant from a herpes infection.