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.
Herpes type 2 (HSV-2) can cause genital herpes. This is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the US. It causes sores or painful blisters on the penis, vagina, scrotum, anus and buttocks. Along with blisters, people with HSV-2 may experience tingling, itching or pain. Like HSV-1, HSV-2 infections are highly contagious. They can be spread easily through skin-to-skin contact. Sexual intercourse is the main route of transmission.
Herpes infection can cause sores or breaks in the skin or lining of the mouth, vagina, and rectum. This provides a way for HIV to enter the body. Even without visible sores, having genital herpes increases the number of CD4 cells (the cells that HIV targets for entry into the body) found in the lining of the genitals. When a person has both HIV and genital herpes, the chances are higher that HIV will be spread to an HIV-uninfected sex partner during sexual contact with their partner’s mouth, vagina, or rectum.
The herpes simplex virus is probably the most well-known virus of the herpes family, and it is just as contagious. Herpes simplex infects epithelial cells and remains latent in neurons. HSV-1 causes recurrent oropharyngeal lesions, commonly known as “fever blisters" or "cold sores.” It is also the primary cause of sporadic encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), gingivostomatitis (inflammation of the gums and mucous lining of the mouth), and keratoconjunctivitis (severe dryness of the eye that involves the cornea) and dendritic corneal ulcers (also called HSV keratitis) in which the cornea becomes affected by herpetic lesions that look like the dendrites of neurons in the brain.
However, asymptomatic carriers of the HSV-2 virus are still contagious. In many infections, the first symptom people will have of their own infections is the horizontal transmission to a sexual partner or the vertical transmission of neonatal herpes to a newborn at term. Since most asymptomatic individuals are unaware of their infection, they are considered at high risk for spreading HSV.
While some people realize that they have genital herpes, many do not. It is estimated that one in five persons in the United States has genital herpes; however, as many as 90 percent are unaware that they have the virus. This is because many people have very mild symptoms that go unrecognized or are mistaken for another condition or no symptoms at all.
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
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.
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."
If you find out your partner has genital herpes, support him or her, and protect yourself. Genital herpes is so common and it may involve more than the virus itself. You can catch the disease from your partner through sexual contact. Without treatment, genital herpes can go away on its own. But, your partner needs medications to stop symptoms and prevent transmission. If you think the disease is harming your relationship, talk to your doctor for help.
^ Xu, Fujie; Fujie Xu; Maya R. Sternberg; Benny J. Kottiri; Geraldine M. McQuillan; Francis K. Lee; Andre J. Nahmias; Stuart M. Berman; Lauri E. Markowitz (2006-10-23). "Trends in Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 Seroprevalence in the United States". JAMA. 296 (8): 964–73. doi:10.1001/jama.296.8.964. PMID 16926356. Archived from the original on 2010-04-24.
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.
Diagnosing herpes is made much easier if you present to your clinician at the time that the rash is present and if possible, we can take a sample from that to be sent for Herpes PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) studies to confirm the diagnosis. Advanced medical investigative techniques such as this will allow us to differentiate type one from type two herpes regardless of the nature and distribution of the rash.
HSV-1 has been proposed as a possible cause of Alzheimer's disease. In the presence of a certain gene variation (APOE-epsilon4 allele carriers), HSV-1 appears to be particularly damaging to the nervous system and increases one's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The virus interacts with the components and receptors of lipoproteins, which may lead to its development.
Herpes simplex type 1, which is transmitted through oral secretions or sores on the skin, can be spread through kissing or sharing objects such as toothbrushes or eating utensils. In general, a person can only get herpes type 2 infection during sexual contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. It is important to know that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be spread even if sores are not present.
Herpes viruses typically infect the oral or genital mucosa. When herpes affects the mouth, it causes the typical "cold sores," which are painful sores or blisters that form on the lips, mouth, or gums. Prior to the development of the blisters, there may be a prodrome (early symptoms indicating onset of a particular disease) consisting of an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the affected area. The virus remains dormant in the nervous system throughout life, and this is the reason that cold sores often recur in the same location.
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Getting tested for STDs is a basic part of staying healthy and taking care of your body — like brushing your teeth and exercising regularly. Getting tested and knowing your status shows you care about yourself and your partner. STD awareness and testing is a basic part of staying healthy and taking care of your body. It’s important to know your risk and protect your health.
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.