Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
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 1 (HHV1) is also known as herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1). It is typically the cause of cold sores around the mouth. HHV1 can also lead to infection in the genital area causing genital herpes usually through oral-genital contact, such as during oral sex. HHV1 infections are contagious and are usually spread from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person through small breaks in the skin or mucous membrane. The HHV1 virus is more likely to be spread through things like sharing eating utensils, razors, and towels from a person who has an active lesion.
Some people have recurrent outbreaks with the so-called “classic” blister-like herpes lesions that crust over, or with painful sores. In recurrent herpes, however, this process usually takes about half the time it does in first episodes. In addition, many people have very subtle forms of recurrent herpes that heal up in a matter of days. And lastly, herpes is capable of reactivating without producing any visible lesions (asymptomatic reactivation).
The most effective method of avoiding genital infections is by avoiding vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Condom use decreases the risk. Daily antiviral medication taken by someone who has the infection can also reduce spread. There is no available vaccine and once infected, there is no cure. Paracetamol (acetaminophen) and topical lidocaine may be used to help with the symptoms. Treatments with antiviral medication such as aciclovir or valaciclovir can lessen the severity of symptomatic episodes.
Prescription antiviral medications are also commonly used to reduce the duration, severity, and incidence of outbreak. These medications include (but are not limited to) valacyclovir, acyclovir, and famciclovir. Remember that these medications will not cure HSV-1 or HSV-2. Instead, they will help reduce the amount of time the outbreak is present, and help control the severity of symptoms.
Although it's rare, pregnant women can pass on the herpes infection to their child. This can result in a serious and sometimes deadly infection in the baby. That's why taking steps to prevent an outbreak at time of delivery is recommended starting at 34 weeks into the pregnancy. If you have signs of an active viral infection when it's time to deliver, your doctor will likely recommend a cesarean section for delivery.
For mild infections, self-care may be adequate for treatment. Other treatments termed "home remedies" are not considered cures but can ease or hasten recovery. These remedies include aloe vera gel, cornstarch paste, and tea or mint leaves. A cool compress may reduce pain. There is no cure for the infection. People with severe infection symptoms, especially children, should be evaluated by a medical caregiver.
Pain, itching and the appearance of sores called lesions are common symptoms of genital herpes. Lesions may appear inside or outside the vagina, and on or around the penis. In both women and men, these sores may appear in and around the anus.6 Lesions typically appear from two days to two weeks after you first get infected with the virus, and will take seven to 14 days or more to heal.7
The “classic” symptoms that most people associate with genital herpes are sores, vesicles, or ulcers – all of which can also be called “lesions.” (The scientific literature on herpes uses the term “lesion” to describe any break or irregularity in the skin.) These classic lesions of genital herpes often resemble small pimples or blisters that eventually crust over and finally scab like a small cut. These lesions may take anywhere from two to four weeks to heal fully.
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.
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.
Do everything possible to prevent spreading it to other people. The virus cannot live long when it is not in contact with the skin, so door handles and towels are not likely to spread it. Do not share your personal belongings, like toothbrushes and combs. Wash your hands with soap and water often, and immediately if you touch the sores. This is important so as to minimize the chance of getting ocular herpes (herpes infection of the eye) which is a serious infection. Be especially careful around infants because their immune systems may not be fully developed. Little children often express affection with sloppy wet kisses. This is a common way to spread the herpes virus within the family.
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People who have had HSV-1 are less likely to contract HSV-2 than those who have not. Previous exposure to HSV-1 also decreases the severity of an HSV-2 outbreak. Reoccurrence of the virus is common, and the virus can be active yet asymptomatic. These infections are more likely to be contracted since the person isn’t aware the virus is active. Studies have shown that 50 percent of the cases of sexual transmission of the virus occurred during asymptomatic infections.
Worldwide rates of either HSV-1 or HSV-2 are between 60% and 95% in adults. HSV-1 is usually acquired during childhood. Rates of both increase as people age. Rates of HSV-1 are between 70% and 80% in populations of low socioeconomic status and 40% to 60% in populations of improved socioeconomic status. An estimated 536 million people worldwide (16% of the population) were infected with HSV-2 as of 2003 with greater rates among women and those in the developing world. Most people with HSV-2 do not realize that they are infected. The name is from Greek: ἕρπης herpēs which means "to creep", referring to spreading blisters. The name does not refer to latency.
Herpesviral encephalitis and herpesviral meningitis Herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE) is a rare life-threatening condition that is thought to be caused by the transmission of HSV-1 either from the nasal cavity to the brain's temporal lobe or from a peripheral site on the face, along the trigeminal nerve axon, to the brainstem. Despite its low incidence, HSE is the most common sporadic fatal encephalitis worldwide. HSV-2 is the most common cause of Mollaret's meningitis, a type of recurrent viral meningitis.
Prodrome: Early in the phase of reactivation (also called an outbreak), many people experience an itching, tingling, or painful feeling in the area where their recurrent lesions will develop. This sort of warning symptom – called a “prodrome” – often comes a day or two before lesions appear. To be on the safe side, it’s best to assume virus is active (and, therefore, can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact) during these times.
Although it’s not caused by either the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus, herpes zoster falls under the umbrella of herpes diseases. Also known as shingles, it’s an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, and is characterized by the development of painful skin rashes on one side of the face or body.23 These rashes are red patches of fluid-filled blisters that tend to crack easily.24,25