Some people experience very mild genital herpes symptoms or no symptoms at all. Frequently, people infected with the virus don't even know they have it. However, when it causes symptoms, it can be described as extremely painful. This is especially true for the first outbreak, which is often the worst. Outbreaks are described as aches or pains in or around the genital area or burning, pain, or difficulty urinating. Some people experience discharge from the vagina or penis.
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.
Herpes viruses typically infect the oral or genital mucosa. When herpes affects the mouth, it causes the typical "cold sores," which are painful sores or blisters that form on the lips, mouth, or gums. Prior to the development of the blisters, there may be a prodrome (early symptoms indicating onset of a particular disease) consisting of an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the affected area. The virus remains dormant in the nervous system throughout life, and this is the reason that cold sores often recur in the same location.
Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, or have symptoms but do not recognize them as a sign of infection. Genital herpes symptoms include blisters, sharp pain or burning feelings if urine flows over sores, an inability to urinate if severe swelling of sores blocks the urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the vagina), itching, open sores, and pain in the infected area.
Worldwide rates of either HSV-1 or HSV-2 are between 60% and 95% in adults. HSV-1 is usually acquired during childhood. Rates of both increase as people age. Rates of HSV-1 are between 70% and 80% in populations of low socioeconomic status and 40% to 60% in populations of improved socioeconomic status. An estimated 536 million people worldwide (16% of the population) were infected with HSV-2 as of 2003 with greater rates among women and those in the developing world. Most people with HSV-2 do not realize that they are infected. The name is from Greek: ἕρπης herpēs which means "to creep", referring to spreading blisters. The name does not refer to latency.
Herpes virus type 3 is also known as varicella-zoster virus which causes chicken pox. This virus can also lead to a recurrent infection called herpes zoster or shingles. It occurs when the virus becomes reactivated after causing chicken pox and infects the skin. So if you have had chicken pox as a child, you may get shingles afterwards. Shingles and chicken pox cause blisters anywhere on the body. They are contagious and can be spread by direct contact with fluid from the blisters.
Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes. See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body. How do you know if you have herpes? Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.
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Varicella-zoster is transmitted though the mucosa of the respiratory system, specifically the upper respiratory tract, or the conjunctiva of the eye. Initial replication takes place in the regional lymph nodes, and then the virus spreads and replication begins in the liver and spleen. The virus is then transported to the skin where the rash develops. The incubation period of varicella is about 10 to 21 days.
For mild infections, self-care may be adequate for treatment. Other treatments termed "home remedies" are not considered cures but can ease or hasten recovery. These remedies include aloe vera gel, cornstarch paste, and tea or mint leaves. A cool compress may reduce pain. There is no cure for the infection. People with severe infection symptoms, especially children, should be evaluated by a medical caregiver.
The risk of transmission from mother to baby is highest if the mother becomes infected around the time of delivery (30% to 60%), since insufficient time will have occurred for the generation and transfer of protective maternal antibodies before the birth of the child. In contrast, the risk falls to 3% if the infection is recurrent, and is 1–3% if the woman is seropositive for both HSV-1 and HSV-2, and is less than 1% if no lesions are visible. Women seropositive for only one type of HSV are only half as likely to transmit HSV as infected seronegative mothers. To prevent neonatal infections, seronegative women are recommended to avoid unprotected oral-genital contact with an HSV-1-seropositive partner and conventional sex with a partner having a genital infection during the last trimester of pregnancy. Mothers infected with HSV are advised to avoid procedures that would cause trauma to the infant during birth (e.g. fetal scalp electrodes, forceps, and vacuum extractors) and, should lesions be present, to elect caesarean section to reduce exposure of the child to infected secretions in the birth canal. The use of antiviral treatments, such as aciclovir, given from the 36th week of pregnancy, limits HSV recurrence and shedding during childbirth, thereby reducing the need for caesarean section.
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