The herpes virus is probably the most well-known virus after influenza (the flu) or the common cold. What most people don’t know is that this nasty little virus can take several different forms, eight to be exact. The most common form of the herpes virus is chicken pox, which is called varicella-zoster. Herpes simplex is the sexually transmitted version of the virus.
Some people have recurrent outbreaks with the so-called “classic” blister-like herpes lesions that crust over, or with painful sores. In recurrent herpes, however, this process usually takes about half the time it does in first episodes. In addition, many people have very subtle forms of recurrent herpes that heal up in a matter of days. And lastly, herpes is capable of reactivating without producing any visible lesions (asymptomatic reactivation).
OK, so the majority of people have it. Just this year, the World Health Organization released a study that estimates two thirds of people in the world (67%) have the HSV-1 strain of the herpes simplex virus — that’s approximately 3.7 billion people worldwide. While HSV-1 typically refers to oral herpes infections, it also includes some genital infections. The new report estimates that half of the HSV-1 infections in people between the ages of 15–49 are actually genital infections transmitted via oral-to-genital contact. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people have genital herpes.
It should not be confused with conditions caused by other viruses in the herpesviridae family such as herpes zoster, which is caused by varicella zoster virus. The differential diagnosis includes hand, foot and mouth disease due to similar lesions on the skin. Lymphangioma circumscriptum and dermatitis herpetiformis may also have a similar appearance.
Genital herpes is not usually accommodated by symptoms. Two-thirds of genital herpes cases are asymptomatic. Getting tested for both HSV-1 and HSV-2 is the only sure way to know if you have genital herpes. Blisters or sores in the genital area, fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, tiredness and painful urination call all be symptoms of genital herpes.
In fact, “atypical symptoms” are the reason that so many people don’t know they have herpes. Their reality is nothing like the scary images that pop up when you Google image search the term. Atypical symptoms include things like nerve pain, achy muscles, itching, and tingling. Some women I talked to reported being misdiagnosed with frequent yeast infections or bacterial infections before receiving their herpes diagnosis. “With your first episode, you can have fever, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms,” says Cullins.
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.