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.
Laboratory testing is often used to confirm a diagnosis of genital herpes. Laboratory tests include culture of the virus, direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) studies to detect virus, skin biopsy, and polymerase chain reaction to test for presence of viral DNA. Although these procedures produce highly sensitive and specific diagnoses, their high costs and time constraints discourage their regular use in clinical practice.
Herpes “triggers” (determining exactly what leads to an outbreak) are highly individual, but with time, many people learn to recognize, and sometimes avoid, factors that seem to reactivate HSV in their own bodies. Illness, poor diet, emotional or physical stress, friction in the genital area, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light (commonly for oral herpes, such as a beach trip or skiing weekend), surgical trauma, and steroidal medication (such as asthma treatment) may trigger a herpes outbreak.
Jamie*, 29, is HSV-positive and contracted herpes from her husband. But, she explains, “He only had one outbreak when he was young and that was it. So he didn't realize what it was.” Jamie was infected three years into their relationship simply because he had outbreaks that infrequently. She says, “I was worried he had cheated on me, but then found similar stories online, and our outbreak patterns underscore that what happened is very possible.”
If abstinence is not possible, using a sexual barrier (such as a condom or dental dam) can reduce the likelihood of transmission, although there is still a risk that these methods will not be sufficient to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s also a good idea to keep a visual reminder of your infection at hand to avoid any accidental food or beverage sharing.
To reduce the chance of acquiring HSV-1, avoid touching saliva, skin, or mucous membranes of people who have HSV-1 lesions. Prevention of genital HSV may be accomplished by latex condoms, but protection is never 100%. Spermicides do not protect against HSV. Some clinicians recommend using dental dams (small latex squares) during oral sex, but like condoms, they are not 100% protective.
The causes of reactivation are uncertain, but several potential triggers have been documented. A 2009 study showed the protein VP16 plays a key role in reactivation of the dormant virus. Changes in the immune system during menstruation may play a role in HSV-1 reactivation. Concurrent infections, such as viral upper respiratory tract infection or other febrile diseases, can cause outbreaks. Reactivation due to other infections is the likely source of the historic terms 'cold sore' and 'fever blister'.
However, there is much more to the herpes virus than just chicken pox or genital herpes. For instance, after an active infection, the virus is shed (eliminated) in the urine and feces for up to several months (sometimes years in the case of the cytomegalovirus) after the active infection has resolved. This means the infected person is still contagious, which is what makes this virus so contagious. It can easily be transferred when the patient is asymptomatic.
After exposure to the virus, many people experience a so called primary infection which is typically associated with sores on or around the genitals or the anus. During a primary infection some people experience pain in the groins or a mild fever. Not all infected individuals experience a primary infection or show any symptoms at all, but they can still pass the disease on to other people.
The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention explains that pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rashes will eventually appear will occur at least one to five days before the rashes are seen. Once these rashes are visible, they scab for around seven to 10 days and heal within two to four weeks.29 Aside from rashes, symptoms of shingles include fever, chills, headaches, fatigue and an upset stomach.30,31
“I kind of can't stand when people tell me how ‘brave’ I am for talking about it,” says Lachrista Greco, 30, who was diagnosed with herpes almost two year ago. That kind of narrative can actually perpetuate the stigma around the virus. By insinuating that talking about something makes someone brave, the implication is that that thing shouldn’t be talked about at all.
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.
A scary finding is that more cases of genital herpes than ever before are now being caused by HSV-1 (the type most people assume only causes mouth sores), and about 85 percent of people with genital herpes don’t even know it. (7) Studies show that about 50 percent of the new genital herpes infections in young adults are due to HSV-1 and about 40 percent in older adults. The fact that most people don’t ever find out they’re infected is one of the reasons that transmission rates are steadily climbing.