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.
Following active infection, herpes viruses establish a latent infection in sensory and autonomic ganglia of the nervous system. The double-stranded DNA of the virus is incorporated into the cell physiology by infection of the nucleus of a nerve's cell body. HSV latency is static; no virus is produced; and is controlled by a number of viral genes, including latency-associated transcript.
Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.
“Herpes is caused by sexual intimacy and contact with a person who is actively shedding the herpes virus,” says Cullins. If you have HSV-1, that shedding could happen through the mouth or a cold sore, which means that the virus can be transmitted through kissing, or just sharing a drink. If you have herpes that affects the genitals, it can be transmitted from sharing sex toys, grinding, or even mutual masturbation — any activity where the virus can be transmitted from one person to another through skin-to-skin or mucosal contact.
HSV asymptomatic shedding occurs at some time in most individuals infected with herpes. It can occur more than a week before or after a symptomatic recurrence in 50% of cases. Virus enters into susceptible cells by entry receptors such as nectin-1, HVEM and 3-O sulfated heparan sulfate. Infected people who show no visible symptoms may still shed and transmit viruses through their skin; asymptomatic shedding may represent the most common form of HSV-2 transmission. Asymptomatic shedding is more frequent within the first 12 months of acquiring HSV. Concurrent infection with HIV increases the frequency and duration of asymptomatic shedding. Some individuals may have much lower patterns of shedding, but evidence supporting this is not fully verified; no significant differences are seen in the frequency of asymptomatic shedding when comparing persons with one to 12 annual recurrences to those with no recurrences.
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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.
Herpes virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the cause of cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. Usually, the sores or blisters can show up on the outside of the mouth or on the lips. But sometimes, they can be inside the mouth, on the face, nose, cheeks or fingers. HSV-1 can also lead to infection of the genitals, called genital herpes. This occurs when you have a cold sore and perform oral sex on another person. HSV-1 infections are highly contagious. Apart from oral-genital contact, they can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. If you come into contact with a person or a thing that carries HSV-1, you will be likely to get it, too. Often, people get HSV-1 from kissing someone with a cold sore or when they share eating utensils, razors, or towels.
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.
Cullins explains that even if you’ve never had an outbreak, if you’ve been exposed to herpes, it lies dormant in your body. A blood test could reveal antibodies for HSV-1 and/or HSV-2, which means that you have been exposed to the infection in your past, you have been infected, and you have developed antibodies because your body has or is fighting the infection.
A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that suppressive therapy decreases the risk of HSV-2 transmission from symptomatic, infected partners to uninfected partners by 48%. So “the risk of transmission is significantly reduced, but cannot be eliminated even with suppressive therapy,” Johnston explains, and she stresses that the virus can be passed along even without signs or symptoms.