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.
The cell this virus targets is the B lymphocyte. These cells mature in the bone marrow and are a type of mononuclear leukocyte cells - white blood cells with a one-lobed nucleus. The incubation period for the Epstein – Barr Virus (EBV) is about 30 to 50 days, and patients typically have enlarged lymph nodes and spleens. Some patients have signs of hepatitis.
Herpes sores follow a similar cyclical pattern and appear first like pimples that turn into small vesicles. Then, the skin becomes crusty, and eventually a scab is formed. It can take up to several weeks for the lesions to heal, during which time there may be one outbreak followed by another. Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of an outbreak, such as: asthma medication, lack of sleep, stress, decreased immunity and ultraviolet rays.
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
That being said, if on paper the HSV titres are high, indicating a high viral load in the body, this can be an indicator of an impending flare. Knowing this, we can prescribe antiviral medications with the aim of suppressing the virus activity. The idea is that we reduce the viral load of HSV, therefore helping the body’s immunity better contain the virus.
As with almost all sexually transmitted infections, women are more susceptible to acquiring genital HSV-2 than men. On an annual basis, without the use of antivirals or condoms, the transmission risk of HSV-2 from infected male to female is about 8–11%. This is believed to be due to the increased exposure of mucosal tissue to potential infection sites. Transmission risk from infected female to male is around 4–5% annually. Suppressive antiviral therapy reduces these risks by 50%. Antivirals also help prevent the development of symptomatic HSV in infection scenarios, meaning the infected partner will be seropositive but symptom-free by about 50%. Condom use also reduces the transmission risk significantly. Condom use is much more effective at preventing male-to-female transmission than vice versa. Previous HSV-1 infection may reduce the risk for acquisition of HSV-2 infection among women by a factor of three, although the one study that states this has a small sample size of 14 transmissions out of 214 couples.
These herpes viruses enter the body through small cuts, abrasions, or breaks in the skin or mucous membranes. The incubation period for herpes simplex infections is about three to six days. Transmission (spread) of the virus is person to person and more likely to occur if blisters or lesions are present. The majority enter after an uninfected person has direct contact with someone carrying the virus (either with or without noticeable lesions). Simply touching an infected person is often the way children get exposed. Adolescents and adults frequently get exposed by skin contact but may get their first exposure by kissing or sexual contact (oral and/or genital contact), especially for HSV-2. Statistical studies suggest that about 80%-90% of people in the U.S. have been exposed to HSV-1 and about 30% have been exposed to HSV-2. Usually, the contagious period continues until lesions heal. Some people (estimated from 30%-50%) occasionally shed herpes virus while having few or no associated symptoms or signs.
It should not be confused with conditions caused by other viruses in the herpesviridae family such as herpes zoster, which is caused by varicella zoster virus. The differential diagnosis includes hand, foot and mouth disease due to similar lesions on the skin. Lymphangioma circumscriptum and dermatitis herpetiformis may also have a similar appearance.
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.