Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections are acquired from direct contact with someone who carries the virus. The infectious secretions that pass on HSV-1 or HSV-2 live on oral, genital or anal mucosal surfaces. They’re passed through skin-to-skin transmission, and any form of direct contact with sores on the mouth, buttocks or genitals can cause the virus to be passed.
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.
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.
The herpes virus is probably the most well-known virus after influenza (the flu) or the common cold. What most people don’t know is that this nasty little virus can take several different forms, eight to be exact. The most common form of the herpes virus is chicken pox, which is called varicella-zoster. Herpes simplex is the sexually transmitted version of the virus.
Consequently, you may already have the virus. A doctor can determine this with a blood test for Herpes 2 (Ig), a type-specific immunoglobulin. If you are already infected, you won’t be at risk for a new infection — you and your boyfriend already share the virus. But knowing your herpes status will tell you whether you are capable of infecting a future partner.
Particularly when someone is on suppressive antiviral medication and practicing safer sex, risk of transmission can be greatly reduced. Cullins suggests female condoms (condoms that go inside the vagina and cover most of the vulva, though it's important to note that not all people with vaginas are female) to provide the most protection against transmission, though condoms that go over the penis will protect what they cover.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although the cause is unknown, outbreaks are often associated with periods of weakened immune systems, skin wounds, menstruation, fever, nerve damage, tissue damage from surgery, or exposure to extreme climate situations. A genital herpes outbreak or episode occurs when the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus is reactivated from its dormant stage. Genital herpes is an incurable disease, and once you contract it, you may experience outbreaks throughout your lifetime. Those who are experiencing their first herpes episode of genital herpes can expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks within a year. Over time these recurrences usually decrease in frequency and severity. The first outbreak of herpes is often the longest outbreak experienced. After that, short and inconsistent episodes can be managed and treated with antiviral medication.
Not every person with a herpes infection actually experiences breakouts of cold sores throughout his or her lifetime or even after initially becoming infected. How often someone has a herpes cold sore outbreak, how severe the outbreaks are, how contagious someone is after infection and how long the sores take to heal all depend on someone’s individual immune response.
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
Basically, even if a herpetic flare is untreated, the entire course of the flare from prodromal symptoms to complete resolution will take about ten days to three weeks. The body is capable of handling such an infection to minimise the effect of it as such.When we prescribe medications for a herpes flare, it’s usually antiviral tablets or creams. Sometimes a steroid course is necessary. These are all in the hopes of expediting the healing process, not as a cure for the virus. Like earlier mentioned, you can be symptom-free, but still, be having the virus in your body waiting for your antibodies to be distracted leaving it free to flare up again.
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.
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)
As of 2017, there is not currently a herpes vaccine available to prevent HSV-1 or HSV-2. (There is a vaccine available for another virus, herpes zoster; however, despite the similar name, it actually refers to the shingles virus. And, in fact, shingles occurs due to the reactivation of yet another virus, varicella zoster, which causes chicken pox.)
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.