When we say, “herpes” many of us are thinking about genital herpes, famously known as an incurable inconvenience. But there is more to it than being just a sexually transmitted infection. There are multiple ways that herpes can transmit but genital herpes is usually picked up from sexual contact. Apart from that, herpes can be transmitted when sharing an environment with someone who has the infection as well.
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.
There’s herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). “HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different but closely related viruses,” says Dr. Christine Johnston, MPH, who is the Associate Medical Director of the Virology Research Clinic at the University of Washington. Johnston explains that both are transmitted through close mucosal or skin contact with infected secretions. HSV-1 primarily causes oral outbreaks, also known as cold sores, and HSV-2 usually causes genital outbreaks. But HSV-1 can also cause genital outbreaks through oral-to-genital contact, according to the CDC. According to Johnston, genital HSV-1 is less likely to recur than HSV-2, and there’s less asymptomatic shedding (transmitting the virus without realizing it) with HSV-1 than with HSV-2.
Pain, itching and the appearance of sores called lesions are common symptoms of genital herpes. Lesions may appear inside or outside the vagina, and on or around the penis. In both women and men, these sores may appear in and around the anus.6 Lesions typically appear from two days to two weeks after you first get infected with the virus, and will take seven to 14 days or more to heal.7
Herpes virus type 3 is also known as varicella-zoster virus which causes chicken pox. This virus can also lead to a recurrent infection called herpes zoster or shingles. It occurs when the virus becomes reactivated after causing chicken pox and infects the skin. So if you have had chicken pox as a child, you may get shingles afterwards. Shingles and chicken pox cause blisters anywhere on the body. They are contagious and can be spread by direct contact with fluid from the blisters.
Herpetic whitlow and herpes gladiatorum Herpes whitlow is a painful infection that typically affects the fingers or thumbs. On occasion, infection occurs on the toes or on the nail cuticle. Individuals who participate in contact sports such as wrestling, rugby, and football (soccer), sometimes acquire a condition caused by HSV-1 known as herpes gladiatorum, scrumpox, wrestler's herpes, or mat herpes, which presents as skin ulceration on the face, ears, and neck. Symptoms include fever, headache, sore throat, and swollen glands. It occasionally affects the eyes or eyelids.
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.
^ McNeil DG. Topical Tenofovir, a Microbicide Effective against HIV, Inhibits Herpes Simplex Virus-2 Replication Archived 2017-04-09 at the Wayback Machine. NY Times. Research article: Andrei G; Lisco A; Vanpouille C; et al. (October 2011). "Topical Tenofovir, a Microbicide Effective against HIV, Inhibits Herpes Simplex Virus-2 Replication". Cell Host. 10 (4): 379–89. doi:10.1016/j.chom.2011.08.015. PMC 3201796. PMID 22018238.
If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, it is very important for you to go to prenatal care visits. Tell your doctor if you have ever had symptoms of, or have been diagnosed with, genital herpes. Also tell your doctor if you have ever been exposed to genital herpes. There is some research that suggests that genital herpes infection may lead to miscarriage, or could make it more likely for you to deliver your baby too early.
Genital herpes is passed on by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys. You can get genital herpes even if there are no visible sores or blisters, and once you have the virus, there is no cure. 'Herpes is more likely to be passed on just before, during or straight after an outbreak, as herpes blisters and sores are highly infectious,' says O’Sullivan.
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.
A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that suppressive therapy decreases the risk of HSV-2 transmission from symptomatic, infected partners to uninfected partners by 48%. So “the risk of transmission is significantly reduced, but cannot be eliminated even with suppressive therapy,” Johnston explains, and she stresses that the virus can be passed along even without signs or symptoms.