“Someone having HSV doesn't mean that they were reckless or irresponsible with their sex life,” says Sara, age 30. “I used condoms with all my partners, and I still caught it.” For Jamie, who contracted herpes from her husband three years into their monogamous relationship, he was her first and only sexual partner. And she says that he contracted it from one of his very first sexual encounters. No matter how and why someone contracted the virus, it doesn't erase their humanity and right to respect.
Herpes virus type 4 is also called Epstein-Barr virus. It typically causes infectious mononucleosis, a “kissing” disease. Symptoms include skin rash, fever, sore throat and swollen lymph glands. The virus can be involved in cancers like nasopharyngeal cancer. Herpes virus type 4 is contagious through bodily fluids, including saliva. Kissing, coughing, sneezing, or sharing utensils can make the infection spread.
Herpes is contracted through direct contact with an active lesion or body fluid of an infected person. Herpes transmission occurs between discordant partners; a person with a history of infection (HSV seropositive) can pass the virus to an HSV seronegative person. Herpes simplex virus 2 is typically contracted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, but can also be contracted by exposure to infected saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or the fluid from herpetic blisters. To infect a new individual, HSV travels through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Even microscopic abrasions on mucous membranes are sufficient to allow viral entry.
Because the herpes virus is so common most people who have either genital or oral herpes do not know that they have it. Additionally, the symptoms of HSV1 or 2 may be mild or at time, may not appear for days, weeks, or even years and sometimes no symptoms of herpes are present at all. It is important to note that symptoms do not have to be present in order to contract this virus, so it is important that you prevent transmission through proper hygiene and awareness.
That being said, if on paper the HSV titres are high, indicating a high viral load in the body, this can be an indicator of an impending flare. Knowing this, we can prescribe antiviral medications with the aim of suppressing the virus activity. The idea is that we reduce the viral load of HSV, therefore helping the body’s immunity better contain the virus.
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.
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.