Herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal. These symptoms are sometimes called “having an outbreak.” The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.
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.
These herpes viruses enter the body through small cuts, abrasions, or breaks in the skin or mucous membranes. The incubation period for herpes simplex infections is about three to six days. Transmission (spread) of the virus is person to person and more likely to occur if blisters or lesions are present. The majority enter after an uninfected person has direct contact with someone carrying the virus (either with or without noticeable lesions). Simply touching an infected person is often the way children get exposed. Adolescents and adults frequently get exposed by skin contact but may get their first exposure by kissing or sexual contact (oral and/or genital contact), especially for HSV-2. Statistical studies suggest that about 80%-90% of people in the U.S. have been exposed to HSV-1 and about 30% have been exposed to HSV-2. Usually, the contagious period continues until lesions heal. Some people (estimated from 30%-50%) occasionally shed herpes virus while having few or no associated symptoms or signs.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a possibility of a herpetic flare up taking a sinister turn and leading to herpetic encephalitis. It is estimated to affect at least 1 in 500,000 individuals per year. The mechanism of this is not fully understood, but it is believed that the infection occurs through direct transmission of the virus via nerves from other parts of the body to the brain. In such cases, a person may complain of fever, headache, and lethargy, followed by confusion or delirium. In some cases, some people even develop seizures. This requires immediate medical attention and treatment.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
Human herpes virus 8 (HHV8) was recently discovered in the tumours called Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS). These tumours are found in people with AIDS and are otherwise very rare. KS forms purplish tumours in the skin and other tissues of some people with AIDS. It is very difficult to treat with medication. HHV8 may also cause other cancers, including certain lymphomas (lymph node cancers) associated with AIDS. The fact that these cancers are caused by a virus may explain why they tend to occur in people with AIDS when their immune systems begin to fail. The discovery also provides new hope that specific treatments for these tumours will be developed that target the virus.
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.)
You may have concerns about how genital herpes will impact your overall health, sex life, and relationships. It is best for you to talk to a health care provider about those concerns, but it also is important to recognize that while herpes is not curable, it can be managed with medication. Daily suppressive therapy (i.e., daily use of antiviral medication) for herpes can also lower your risk of spreading genital herpes to your sex partner. Be sure to discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider. Since a genital herpes diagnosis may affect how you will feel about current or future sexual relationships, it is important to understand how to talk to sexual partners about STDsExternal.
An important source of support is the National Herpes Resource Center which arose from the work of the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). The ASHA was created in 1914 to in response to the increase in sexually transmitted diseases that had spread during World War I. During the 1970s, there was an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. One of the diseases that increased dramatically was genital herpes. In response, ASHA created the National Herpes Resource Center in 1979. The HRC was designed to meet the growing need for education and awareness about the virus. One of the projects of The Herpes Resource Center (HRC) was to create a network of local support (HELP) groups. The goal of these HELP groups was to provide a safe, confidential environment where participants can get accurate information and share experiences, fears, and feelings with others who are concerned about herpes.
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.