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.
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.
Herpes “triggers” (determining exactly what leads to an outbreak) are highly individual, but with time, many people learn to recognize, and sometimes avoid, factors that seem to reactivate HSV in their own bodies. Illness, poor diet, emotional or physical stress, friction in the genital area, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light (commonly for oral herpes, such as a beach trip or skiing weekend), surgical trauma, and steroidal medication (such as asthma treatment) may trigger a herpes outbreak.
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“Herpes is caused by sexual intimacy and contact with a person who is actively shedding the herpes virus,” says Cullins. If you have HSV-1, that shedding could happen through the mouth or a cold sore, which means that the virus can be transmitted through kissing, or just sharing a drink. If you have herpes that affects the genitals, it can be transmitted from sharing sex toys, grinding, or even mutual masturbation — any activity where the virus can be transmitted from one person to another through skin-to-skin or mucosal contact.
The frequency and severity of recurrent outbreaks vary greatly between people. Some individuals' outbreaks can be quite debilitating, with large, painful lesions persisting for several weeks, while others experience only minor itching or burning for a few days. Some evidence indicates genetics play a role in the frequency of cold sore outbreaks. An area of human chromosome 21 that includes six genes has been linked to frequent oral herpes outbreaks. An immunity to the virus is built over time. Most infected individuals experience fewer outbreaks and outbreak symptoms often become less severe. After several years, some people become perpetually asymptomatic and no longer experience outbreaks, though they may still be contagious to others. Immunocompromised individuals may experience longer, more frequent, and more severe episodes. Antiviral medication has been proven to shorten the frequency and duration of outbreaks. Outbreaks may occur at the original site of the infection or in proximity to nerve endings that reach out from the infected ganglia. In the case of a genital infection, sores can appear at the original site of infection or near the base of the spine, the buttocks, or the back of the thighs. HSV-2-infected individuals are at higher risk for acquiring HIV when practicing unprotected sex with HIV-positive persons, in particular during an outbreak with active lesions.
Doctors prescribe suppressive treatment if a person experiences more than six recurrences in a year. In some cases, a doctor my recommend that the individual takes daily antiviral treatment indefinitely. The aim here is to prevent further recurrences. Although suppressive treatment significantly reduces the risk of passing HSV to a partner, there is still a risk.
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.)
Human herpes virus 3 (HHV3) is also called varicella-zoster virus. HHV3 causes chickenpox. It can also cause a recurrent virus infection of the skin, which is called herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles occurs when dormant varicella-zoster virus from an initial bout of chickenpox becomes reactivated. Like its close relative, HHV1, herpes zoster likes to infect skin cells and nerve cells. This virus may also recur along nerve fibre pathways, causing multiple sores where nerve fibres end on skin cells. Because an entire group of nerve cells is often affected, shingles is generally much more severe than a recurrence of herpes simplex. The lesions generally appear in a band-like or belt-like pattern occurring on one side of the body and are often accompanied by itching, tingling, or even severe pain. Healing usually occurs in 2 to 4 weeks, and scars may remain. Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles where the pain associated with the infection can persist for months and even years. Most people who experience shingles once do not experience it again.
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.
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Consider designating a special, brightly colored bracelet or visual designator that you will wear only during active viral periods: this will serve as a visual cue, reminding you each time that you eat or drink that food and/or beverage sharing is not an option during this time: this subtle cue will remind you to not engage in a high-risk behavior during an active viral period.
If you think you have or have been exposed to herpes you should see your primary care provider for follow up, screening, and possible treatment. Many providers today will not test unless you have symptoms of an outbreak, as often tests come back as false positive and the CDC has concluded that false positives cause psychological trauma to those tested. There is much debate on if you should test without symptoms or not, others say it is unethical to not be aware of your current STD status and risk infecting other people.
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.
According to Cullins, there are no standardized guidelines from the CDC for suppressive therapy through medication, but it is an option that people with HSV should talk to their healthcare providers about. “If a person knows they have had herpes in the past that has affected their genitals, they can take suppressive therapy — for example, 500 mg of valacyclovir daily.” While it won’t prevent outbreaks, it will prevent asymptomatic virus shedding. Preventing exposure to the virus through both medication and a physical barrier can be very effective.