Herpes simplex is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. Infections are categorized based on the part of the body infected. Oral herpes involves the face or mouth. It may result in small blisters in groups often called cold sores or fever blisters or may just cause a sore throat. Genital herpes, often simply known as herpes, may have minimal symptoms or form blisters that break open and result in small ulcers. These typically heal over two to four weeks. Tingling or shooting pains may occur before the blisters appear. Herpes cycles between periods of active disease followed by periods without symptoms. The first episode is often more severe and may be associated with fever, muscle pains, swollen lymph nodes and headaches. Over time, episodes of active disease decrease in frequency and severity. Other disorders caused by herpes simplex include: herpetic whitlow when it involves the fingers, herpes of the eye, herpes infection of the brain, and neonatal herpes when it affects a newborn, among others.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Many HSV-infected people experience recurrence within the first year of infection. Prodrome precedes development of lesions. Prodromal symptoms include tingling (paresthesia), itching, and pain where lumbosacral nerves innervate the skin. Prodrome may occur as long as several days or as short as a few hours before lesions develop. Beginning antiviral treatment when prodrome is experienced can reduce the appearance and duration of lesions in some individuals. During recurrence, fewer lesions are likely to develop and are less painful and heal faster (within 5–10 days without antiviral treatment) than those occurring during the primary infection. Subsequent outbreaks tend to be periodic or episodic, occurring on average four or five times a year when not using antiviral therapy.
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.
No method eradicates herpes virus from the body, but antiviral medications can reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of outbreaks. Analgesics such as ibuprofen and paracetamol (acetaminophen) can reduce pain and fever. Topical anesthetic treatments such as prilocaine, lidocaine, benzocaine, or tetracaine can also relieve itching and pain.
Transmission of HSV-1 occurs by direct exposure to saliva or droplets formed in the breath of infected individuals. In addition, skin contact with the lesions on an infected individual can spread the disease to another individual. Although close personal contact is usually required for transmission of the virus, it is possible to transmit HSV-1 when people share toothbrushes, drinking glasses, or eating utensils.
Some people have recurrent outbreaks with the so-called “classic” blister-like herpes lesions that crust over, or with painful sores. In recurrent herpes, however, this process usually takes about half the time it does in first episodes. In addition, many people have very subtle forms of recurrent herpes that heal up in a matter of days. And lastly, herpes is capable of reactivating without producing any visible lesions (asymptomatic reactivation).
“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.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 30% of pregnant women in the United States have genital HSV. During pregnancy, people are immunocompromised so that their body doesn’t fight the fetus as a foreign invader. And when a person’s immune system is weakened, they are more likely to have herpes outbreaks. According to Cullins, “Pregnancy is the time period when [a provider] really wants to know whether or not the person has had herpes in the past,” so they can protect the pregnant person and their infant from a herpes infection.