Herpes simplex is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. Infections are categorized based on the part of the body infected. Oral herpes involves the face or mouth. It may result in small blisters in groups often called cold sores or fever blisters or may just cause a sore throat. Genital herpes, often simply known as herpes, may have minimal symptoms or form blisters that break open and result in small ulcers. These typically heal over two to four weeks. Tingling or shooting pains may occur before the blisters appear. Herpes cycles between periods of active disease followed by periods without symptoms. The first episode is often more severe and may be associated with fever, muscle pains, swollen lymph nodes and headaches. Over time, episodes of active disease decrease in frequency and severity. Other disorders caused by herpes simplex include: herpetic whitlow when it involves the fingers, herpes of the eye, herpes infection of the brain, and neonatal herpes when it affects a newborn, among others.
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.
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.
OK, so the majority of people have it. Just this year, the World Health Organization released a study that estimates two thirds of people in the world (67%) have the HSV-1 strain of the herpes simplex virus — that’s approximately 3.7 billion people worldwide. While HSV-1 typically refers to oral herpes infections, it also includes some genital infections. The new report estimates that half of the HSV-1 infections in people between the ages of 15–49 are actually genital infections transmitted via oral-to-genital contact. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people have genital herpes.
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.
Avoid physical contact with anyone who has visible blisters and sores, and don't share towels or anything that may have come into contact with the sores. "It is also important that before you have any intimate contact with anyone you ask them about their sexual health, whether they have a herpes infection or have ever had any other sexually transmitted infection," Michael advises. "This is because statistically, people who have had an STI are more likely to be infected with the herpes virus. Using condoms and dental dams can also help reduce your risk of catching oral herpes."
Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, or have symptoms but do not recognize them as a sign of infection. Genital herpes symptoms include blisters, sharp pain or burning feelings if urine flows over sores, an inability to urinate if severe swelling of sores blocks the urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the vagina), itching, open sores, and pain in the infected area.
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.
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.
Cullins explains that the first, or initial, outbreak is usually the worst, and “over time when you have recurrent episodes, you may not have systemic symptoms” or frequent symptoms. But everyone’s body and immune system reacts to the virus differently; while some people may never have many outbreaks, other people may be more chronically symptomatic. The National Institutes of Health indicate that infrequent outbreaks, around one or two per year, are not uncommon.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 30% of pregnant women in the United States have genital HSV. During pregnancy, people are immunocompromised so that their body doesn’t fight the fetus as a foreign invader. And when a person’s immune system is weakened, they are more likely to have herpes outbreaks. According to Cullins, “Pregnancy is the time period when [a provider] really wants to know whether or not the person has had herpes in the past,” so they can protect the pregnant person and their infant from a herpes infection.