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.
“Someone having HSV doesn't mean that they were reckless or irresponsible with their sex life,” says Sara, age 30. “I used condoms with all my partners, and I still caught it.” For Jamie, who contracted herpes from her husband three years into their monogamous relationship, he was her first and only sexual partner. And she says that he contracted it from one of his very first sexual encounters. No matter how and why someone contracted the virus, it doesn't erase their humanity and right to respect.
“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.
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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.
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)
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.
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