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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.”
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.
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.
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.
Pain, sore lips, burning sensation, tingling, or itching occurs at the infection site before the sores appear. These are the early symptoms (prodrome). Sometimes these symptoms happen prior to the appearance of sores, bumps, pimple-like lesions, or blisters (herpes or herpetic stomatitis). Thereafter, clusters or groups of painful blisters (also termed fever blisters) or vesicles erupt or ooze with a clear to yellowish fluid that may develop into a yellowish crust. These blisters break down rapidly and appear as tiny, shallow gray ulcers on a red base. Fever blisters are smaller than canker sores. A few days later, they become crusted or scabbed and appear drier and more yellow.
“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.
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.
Although it's rare, pregnant women can pass on the herpes infection to their child. This can result in a serious and sometimes deadly infection in the baby. That's why taking steps to prevent an outbreak at time of delivery is recommended starting at 34 weeks into the pregnancy. If you have signs of an active viral infection when it's time to deliver, your doctor will likely recommend a cesarean section for delivery.