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.
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.
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In this article, we will discuss what you need to know about the herpes virus. Herpes has been around for thousands of years. During most of this time, it has not been very well understood. It was not known to be caused by a virus until the 19405. Not until late in the 1960s were two separate viruses isolated. Physicians confidently misdiagnosed the disease until only recently. More has been written and learned about herpes in the last two years than in the last two thousand years put together.
Your healthcare provider may diagnose genital herpes by simply looking at your symptoms. Providers can also take a sample from the sore(s) and test it. In certain situations, a blood test may be used to look for herpes antibodies. Have an honest and open talk with your health care provider and ask whether you should be tested for herpes or other STDs.
Pain, sore lips, burning sensation, tingling, or itching occurs at the infection site before the sores appear. These are the early symptoms (prodrome). Sometimes these symptoms happen prior to the appearance of sores, bumps, pimple-like lesions, or blisters (herpes or herpetic stomatitis). Thereafter, clusters or groups of painful blisters (also termed fever blisters) or vesicles erupt or ooze with a clear to yellowish fluid that may develop into a yellowish crust. These blisters break down rapidly and appear as tiny, shallow gray ulcers on a red base. Fever blisters are smaller than canker sores. A few days later, they become crusted or scabbed and appear drier and more yellow.
Prescription antiviral medications are also commonly used to reduce the duration, severity, and incidence of outbreak. These medications include (but are not limited to) valacyclovir, acyclovir, and famciclovir. Remember that these medications will not cure HSV-1 or HSV-2. Instead, they will help reduce the amount of time the outbreak is present, and help control the severity of symptoms.
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.
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 simplex type 1, which is transmitted through oral secretions or sores on the skin, can be spread through kissing or sharing objects such as toothbrushes or eating utensils. In general, a person can only get herpes type 2 infection during sexual contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. It is important to know that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be spread even if sores are not present.
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.
If you find out your partner has genital herpes, support him or her, and protect yourself. Genital herpes is so common and it may involve more than the virus itself. You can catch the disease from your partner through sexual contact. Without treatment, genital herpes can go away on its own. But, your partner needs medications to stop symptoms and prevent transmission. If you think the disease is harming your relationship, talk to your doctor for help.
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.
Avoid physical contact with anyone who has visible blisters and sores, and don't share towels or anything that may have come into contact with the sores. "It is also important that before you have any intimate contact with anyone you ask them about their sexual health, whether they have a herpes infection or have ever had any other sexually transmitted infection," Michael advises. "This is because statistically, people who have had an STI are more likely to be infected with the herpes virus. Using condoms and dental dams can also help reduce your risk of catching oral herpes."
Oral herpes is also known commonly as cold sores and fever blisters but is different entity from oral canker sores although canker sores may sometimes be associated with HSV infection. Canker sores occur solely inside the mouth. Oral herpes occurs inside and around the mouth. Most of the time HSV-1 causes mouth symptoms and in a minority of cases it may also be responsible for genital symptoms. The opposite is true for HSV-2 – it causes genital symptoms in the majority of cases while only a few cases of HSV-2 infection will result in mouth symptoms. HSV-1 infection may be seen in all ages, including children, but when genital herpes is seen in children, sexual abuse needs to be a consideration.
The herpes virus can be shed from an infected person even when there are no lesions visible. So caution is important. Some may wish to take the daily prophylactic oral drug Valtrex (an antiviral oral medication) to help cut down on shedding. Herpes can also be transmitted on any skin: fingers, lips, etc. Depending on sexual practices, herpes simplex can be transferred to genitals and or buttocks from the lips of someone who has fever blisters. Honesty between partners is very important so these issues can be discussed openly.
The herpes simplex virus is probably the most well-known virus of the herpes family, and it is just as contagious. Herpes simplex infects epithelial cells and remains latent in neurons. HSV-1 causes recurrent oropharyngeal lesions, commonly known as “fever blisters" or "cold sores.” It is also the primary cause of sporadic encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), gingivostomatitis (inflammation of the gums and mucous lining of the mouth), and keratoconjunctivitis (severe dryness of the eye that involves the cornea) and dendritic corneal ulcers (also called HSV keratitis) in which the cornea becomes affected by herpetic lesions that look like the dendrites of neurons in the brain.
Recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes may happen, with some patients having four to six outbreaks in the span of a year. Compared to the first infection, subsequent recurrences are less painful and occur in shorter periods than the first infection. There are some patients, however, who don’t have another outbreak for many years or even once more during their lifetime.11
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections are acquired from direct contact with someone who carries the virus. The infectious secretions that pass on HSV-1 or HSV-2 live on oral, genital or anal mucosal surfaces. They’re passed through skin-to-skin transmission, and any form of direct contact with sores on the mouth, buttocks or genitals can cause the virus to be passed.
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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.