“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.
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 herpes virus is probably the most well-known virus after influenza (the flu) or the common cold. What most people don’t know is that this nasty little virus can take several different forms, eight to be exact. The most common form of the herpes virus is chicken pox, which is called varicella-zoster. Herpes simplex is the sexually transmitted version of the virus.
But I was wrong, on so many levels. I did find love again. And I wasn’t alone — very far from it, in fact. Herpes is extremely common, with statistics showing that as many as one in six people ages 14 to 49 in the U.S. has herpes caused by the herpes simplex-2 virus (and since herpes simplex-1 virus also causes herpes, that number is likely even higher).
Herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal. These symptoms are sometimes called “having an outbreak.” The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.
Traditionally, it was assumed that HSV-1 strictly caused oral sores and blisters, whereas HSV-2 caused genital and/or rectal sores and blisters. However, the virus- or perhaps just our understanding of the virus itself- has evolved in such a way that doctors now recognize that either HSV-1 or HSV-2 can cause genital and/or rectal sores, albeit with HSV-2 causing the majority of sores in the genital or rectal areas.
^ 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.
Because the herpes virus is so common most people who have either genital or oral herpes do not know that they have it. Additionally, the symptoms of HSV1 or 2 may be mild or at time, may not appear for days, weeks, or even years and sometimes no symptoms of herpes are present at all. It is important to note that symptoms do not have to be present in order to contract this virus, so it is important that you prevent transmission through proper hygiene and awareness.
OK, so the majority of people have it. Just this year, the World Health Organization released a study that estimates two thirds of people in the world (67%) have the HSV-1 strain of the herpes simplex virus — that’s approximately 3.7 billion people worldwide. While HSV-1 typically refers to oral herpes infections, it also includes some genital infections. The new report estimates that half of the HSV-1 infections in people between the ages of 15–49 are actually genital infections transmitted via oral-to-genital contact. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people have genital herpes.
The annual incidence in Canada of genital herpes due to HSV-1 and HSV-2 infection is not known (for a review of HSV-1/HSV-2 prevalence and incidence studies worldwide, see Smith and Robinson 2002). As many as one in seven Canadians aged 14 to 59 may be infected with herpes simplex type 2 virus and more than 90 per cent of them may be unaware of their status, a new study suggests. In the United States, it is estimated that about 1,640,000 HSV-2 seroconversions occur yearly (730,000 men and 910,000 women, or 8.4 per 1,000 persons).
Some people experience very mild genital herpes symptoms or no symptoms at all. Frequently, people infected with the virus don't even know they have it. However, when it causes symptoms, it can be described as extremely painful. This is especially true for the first outbreak, which is often the worst. Outbreaks are described as aches or pains in or around the genital area or burning, pain, or difficulty urinating. Some people experience discharge from the vagina or penis.
Following active infection, herpes viruses establish a latent infection in sensory and autonomic ganglia of the nervous system. The double-stranded DNA of the virus is incorporated into the cell physiology by infection of the nucleus of a nerve's cell body. HSV latency is static; no virus is produced; and is controlled by a number of viral genes, including latency-associated transcript.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Cullins explains that the first, or initial, outbreak is usually the worst, and “over time when you have recurrent episodes, you may not have systemic symptoms” or frequent symptoms. But everyone’s body and immune system reacts to the virus differently; while some people may never have many outbreaks, other people may be more chronically symptomatic. The National Institutes of Health indicate that infrequent outbreaks, around one or two per year, are not uncommon.
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.