Oral herpes (HSV-1) infection (or exposure without noticeable infection) is common. About 65% of the U.S. population has detectable antibodies to HSV-1 by age 40. This article will focus on HSV-1, or oral herpes, not on HSV-2, also commonly known as genital herpes. Genital herpes is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In addition, HSV-2 virus should not be confused with human papillomavirus (HPV), the cause of genital warts, and some cervical and other cancer types.
If you have recently made it through a first episode that consisted of full-blown symptoms, you know something about signs and symptoms already. The good news is that the first episode is almost always the worst that HSV throws your way. Signs and symptoms of recurrent episodes (when they occur) tend to be milder and heal much more quickly, typically within two to twelve days.
Human herpes virus 3 (HHV3) is also called varicella-zoster virus. HHV3 causes chickenpox. It can also cause a recurrent virus infection of the skin, which is called herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles occurs when dormant varicella-zoster virus from an initial bout of chickenpox becomes reactivated. Like its close relative, HHV1, herpes zoster likes to infect skin cells and nerve cells. This virus may also recur along nerve fibre pathways, causing multiple sores where nerve fibres end on skin cells. Because an entire group of nerve cells is often affected, shingles is generally much more severe than a recurrence of herpes simplex. The lesions generally appear in a band-like or belt-like pattern occurring on one side of the body and are often accompanied by itching, tingling, or even severe pain. Healing usually occurs in 2 to 4 weeks, and scars may remain. Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles where the pain associated with the infection can persist for months and even years. Most people who experience shingles once do not experience it again.
Human herpes virus 1 (HHV1) is also known as herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1). It is typically the cause of cold sores around the mouth. HHV1 can also lead to infection in the genital area causing genital herpes usually through oral-genital contact, such as during oral sex. HHV1 infections are contagious and are usually spread from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person through small breaks in the skin or mucous membrane. The HHV1 virus is more likely to be spread through things like sharing eating utensils, razors, and towels from a person who has an active lesion.
If not treated immediately, it has potential spread to other parts of the body. Being highly contagious in nature it gets readily transmitted by sharing utensils, clothes, and toothbrush. Maintaining sexual contact, kissing and touching also leads to the spread of virus. It is likely to spread more when the virus is present with physical outbursts. It is less contagious if the virus is present without any outward physical signs.
Herpes sores follow a similar cyclical pattern and appear first like pimples that turn into small vesicles. Then, the skin becomes crusty, and eventually a scab is formed. It can take up to several weeks for the lesions to heal, during which time there may be one outbreak followed by another. Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of an outbreak, such as: asthma medication, lack of sleep, stress, decreased immunity and ultraviolet rays.
As with almost all sexually transmitted infections, women are more susceptible to acquiring genital HSV-2 than men. On an annual basis, without the use of antivirals or condoms, the transmission risk of HSV-2 from infected male to female is about 8–11%. This is believed to be due to the increased exposure of mucosal tissue to potential infection sites. Transmission risk from infected female to male is around 4–5% annually. Suppressive antiviral therapy reduces these risks by 50%. Antivirals also help prevent the development of symptomatic HSV in infection scenarios, meaning the infected partner will be seropositive but symptom-free by about 50%. Condom use also reduces the transmission risk significantly. Condom use is much more effective at preventing male-to-female transmission than vice versa. Previous HSV-1 infection may reduce the risk for acquisition of HSV-2 infection among women by a factor of three, although the one study that states this has a small sample size of 14 transmissions out of 214 couples.
Doctors prescribe suppressive treatment if a person experiences more than six recurrences in a year. In some cases, a doctor my recommend that the individual takes daily antiviral treatment indefinitely. The aim here is to prevent further recurrences. Although suppressive treatment significantly reduces the risk of passing HSV to a partner, there is still a risk.
The broader issue is whether, if you do get infected, herpes will ultimately harm your health. Although I don’t want to trivialize this infection, in your general scheme of health, it probably will not. The major concern is that if you are pregnant and develop a new outbreak of herpes, the virus can be transmitted to the fetus, especially during vaginal delivery. What’s more, people with genital herpes have a much greater risk of acquiring HIV if they are exposed. (It’s theorized that the lesion causes microscopic breaks in the skin, allowing HIV to enter the body.)
When a herpes outbreak occurs, you can expect cold sores to take about 10–14 days to heal on average. During this time period, the virus is considered to be active, and you should be very careful to avoid direct contact between a sore and someone else. If after trying the natural remedies for herpes described above you still experience frequent recurrences, talk to your doctor for how to get rid of herpes symptoms. Sometimes immunity is suppressed due to another infection or virus, or even as a side effect of taking some medications, so be sure to rule these causes out.
According to Melissa King, a psychotherapist who runs a support group for women with herpes in New York City, when someone finds out they’ve gotten herpes from a partner, there’s often immediately an assumption that the partner knew that they had it and lied, or that they were cheating. “But the reality is that in a lot of cases, people don’t know that they have it,” King tells BuzzFeed.