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.
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.
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.
“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.
Herpes simplex viruses -- more commonly known as herpes -- are categorized into two types: herpes type 1 (HSV-1, or oral herpes) and herpes type 2 (HSV-2, or genital herpes). Most commonly, herpes type 1 causes sores around the mouth and lips (sometimes called fever blisters or cold sores). HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but most cases of genital herpes are caused by herpes type 2. In HSV-2, the infected person may have sores around the genitals or rectum. Although HSV-2 sores may occur in other locations, these sores usually are found below the waist.
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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.)
Antibodies that develop following an initial infection with a type of HSV prevents reinfection with the same virus type—a person with a history of orofacial infection caused by HSV-1 cannot contract herpes whitlow or a genital infection caused by HSV-1. In a monogamous couple, a seronegative female runs a greater than 30% per year risk of contracting an HSV infection from a seropositive male partner. If an oral HSV-1 infection is contracted first, seroconversion will have occurred after 6 weeks to provide protective antibodies against a future genital HSV-1 infection. Herpes simplex is a double-stranded DNA virus.
Herpes type 2 is one of two types of HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus). The virus is also known as HSV-2 and differs slightly from HSV-1. It is also called genital herpes or herpes genitalis, which is considered a harmless viral infection. Herpes genitalis is usually considered a sexually transmitted disease. However, it is not listed among notifiable diseases regulated under the Public Health Act.
Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes. See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body. How do you know if you have herpes? Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.
The most effective method of avoiding genital infections is by avoiding vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Condom use decreases the risk. Daily antiviral medication taken by someone who has the infection can also reduce spread. There is no available vaccine and once infected, there is no cure. Paracetamol (acetaminophen) and topical lidocaine may be used to help with the symptoms. Treatments with antiviral medication such as aciclovir or valaciclovir can lessen the severity of symptomatic episodes.
Evidence is insufficient to support use of many of these compounds, including echinacea, eleuthero, L-lysine, zinc, monolaurin bee products, and aloe vera. While a number of small studies show possible benefit from monolaurin, L-lysine, aspirin, lemon balm, topical zinc, or licorice root cream in treatment, these preliminary studies have not been confirmed by higher-quality randomized controlled studies.
Prodrome: Early in the phase of reactivation (also called an outbreak), many people experience an itching, tingling, or painful feeling in the area where their recurrent lesions will develop. This sort of warning symptom – called a “prodrome” – often comes a day or two before lesions appear. To be on the safe side, it’s best to assume virus is active (and, therefore, can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact) during these times.
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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.
Jamie*, 29, is HSV-positive and contracted herpes from her husband. But, she explains, “He only had one outbreak when he was young and that was it. So he didn't realize what it was.” Jamie was infected three years into their relationship simply because he had outbreaks that infrequently. She says, “I was worried he had cheated on me, but then found similar stories online, and our outbreak patterns underscore that what happened is very possible.”
If you have recently made it through a first episode that consisted of full-blown symptoms, you know something about signs and symptoms already. The good news is that the first episode is almost always the worst that HSV throws your way. Signs and symptoms of recurrent episodes (when they occur) tend to be milder and heal much more quickly, typically within two to twelve days.
'Using condoms or dams can help to protect against STIs, but herpes can also be passed on by skin-to-skin contact with the affected area, so it’s strongly recommended that you don’t have sex during this time,' she adds. 'This includes direct genital contact or skin-to-skin contact with the affected area, and doesn’t have to be penetrative sex,' says O’Sullivan.