Herpes, whether on the mouth or genitals, is caused by a family of over 70 related viruses. These viral infections cause small, fluid-filled blisters to develop on the skin and mucous membranes. There are actually eight different types of herpes simplex viruses that both children and adults can acquire, but two are by far the most common: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Canker sores are sometimes thought to be caused by HSV, but this is not true. Canker sores occur only inside the mouth, on the tongue, and on the soft palate (roof of mouth), not on skin surfaces. Although they reoccur, they are not contagious, usually are self-limiting, and have almost no complications. Canker sores are caused by substances that irritate the lining of the mouth.
Herpes simplex viruses -- more commonly known as herpes -- are categorized into two types: herpes type 1 (HSV-1, or oral herpes) and herpes type 2 (HSV-2, or genital herpes). Most commonly, herpes type 1 causes sores around the mouth and lips (sometimes called fever blisters or cold sores). HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but most cases of genital herpes are caused by herpes type 2. In HSV-2, the infected person may have sores around the genitals or rectum. Although HSV-2 sores may occur in other locations, these sores usually are found below the waist.
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.