Oral herpes (HSV-1) infection (or exposure without noticeable infection) is common. About 65% of the U.S. population has detectable antibodies to HSV-1 by age 40. This article will focus on HSV-1, or oral herpes, not on HSV-2, also commonly known as genital herpes. Genital herpes is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In addition, HSV-2 virus should not be confused with human papillomavirus (HPV), the cause of genital warts, and some cervical and other cancer types.
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).
The cell this virus targets is the B lymphocyte. These cells mature in the bone marrow and are a type of mononuclear leukocyte cells - white blood cells with a one-lobed nucleus. The incubation period for the Epstein – Barr Virus (EBV) is about 30 to 50 days, and patients typically have enlarged lymph nodes and spleens. Some patients have signs of hepatitis.
Since genital herpes affects the private parts, people tend to think that the virus acts differently on men and women. However, the symptoms of genital herpes are very similar in males and females. The most important difference is that the virus can cause complications in pregnant women, who can pass the infection on to their babies. Other than that, there is no such thing as a male or female genital herpes virus, the infection is caused by the same virus in both sexes.
Human herpes virus 1 (HHV1) is also known as herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1). It is typically the cause of cold sores around the mouth. HHV1 can also lead to infection in the genital area causing genital herpes usually through oral-genital contact, such as during oral sex. HHV1 infections are contagious and are usually spread from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person through small breaks in the skin or mucous membrane. The HHV1 virus is more likely to be spread through things like sharing eating utensils, razors, and towels from a person who has an active lesion.
Herpes antiviral therapy began in the early 1960s with the experimental use of medications that interfered with viral replication called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) inhibitors. The original use was against normally fatal or debilitating illnesses such as adult encephalitis, keratitis, in immunocompromised (transplant) patients, or disseminated herpes zoster. The original compounds used were 5-iodo-2'-deoxyuridine, AKA idoxuridine, IUdR, or(IDU) and 1-β-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine or ara-C, later marketed under the name cytosar or cytarabine. The usage expanded to include topical treatment of herpes simplex, zoster, and varicella. Some trials combined different antivirals with differing results. The introduction of 9-β-D-arabinofuranosyladenine, (ara-A or vidarabine), considerably less toxic than ara-C, in the mid-1970s, heralded the way for the beginning of regular neonatal antiviral treatment. Vidarabine was the first systemically administered antiviral medication with activity against HSV for which therapeutic efficacy outweighed toxicity for the management of life-threatening HSV disease. Intravenous vidarabine was licensed for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1977. Other experimental antivirals of that period included: heparin, trifluorothymidine (TFT), Ribivarin, interferon, Virazole, and 5-methoxymethyl-2'-deoxyuridine (MMUdR). The introduction of 9-(2-hydroxyethoxymethyl)guanine, AKA aciclovir, in the late 1970s raised antiviral treatment another notch and led to vidarabine vs. aciclovir trials in the late 1980s. The lower toxicity and ease of administration over vidarabine has led to aciclovir becoming the drug of choice for herpes treatment after it was licensed by the FDA in 1998. Another advantage in the treatment of neonatal herpes included greater reductions in mortality and morbidity with increased dosages, which did not occur when compared with increased dosages of vidarabine. However, aciclovir seems to inhibit antibody response, and newborns on aciclovir antiviral treatment experienced a slower rise in antibody titer than those on vidarabine.
The frequency and severity of recurrent outbreaks vary greatly between people. Some individuals' outbreaks can be quite debilitating, with large, painful lesions persisting for several weeks, while others experience only minor itching or burning for a few days. Some evidence indicates genetics play a role in the frequency of cold sore outbreaks. An area of human chromosome 21 that includes six genes has been linked to frequent oral herpes outbreaks. An immunity to the virus is built over time. Most infected individuals experience fewer outbreaks and outbreak symptoms often become less severe. After several years, some people become perpetually asymptomatic and no longer experience outbreaks, though they may still be contagious to others. Immunocompromised individuals may experience longer, more frequent, and more severe episodes. Antiviral medication has been proven to shorten the frequency and duration of outbreaks. Outbreaks may occur at the original site of the infection or in proximity to nerve endings that reach out from the infected ganglia. In the case of a genital infection, sores can appear at the original site of infection or near the base of the spine, the buttocks, or the back of the thighs. HSV-2-infected individuals are at higher risk for acquiring HIV when practicing unprotected sex with HIV-positive persons, in particular during an outbreak with active lesions.
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.
If you find out your partner has genital herpes, support him or her, and protect yourself. Genital herpes is so common and it may involve more than the virus itself. You can catch the disease from your partner through sexual contact. Without treatment, genital herpes can go away on its own. But, your partner needs medications to stop symptoms and prevent transmission. If you think the disease is harming your relationship, talk to your doctor for help.
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.