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.
Only a health care provider can diagnose herpes by performing a physical exam and tests. A blood test can tell if you are infected with oral or genital herpes — even if you don't have symptoms. Health care providers can also confirm herpes infection by testing fluids taken from the sores. If you think you have herpes sores, get them checked out as soon as possible. Your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other health centers that test for sexually transmitted diseases, private health care providers, and health departments offer herpes tests and herpes treatments.
STI and sexual health expert Michael Asher (who is also CEO at Better2know, the company behind the STI testing for E4's The Sex Clinic) explains what we all should know about oral herpes. He says, "With 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 being infected with HSV1, it is incredibly common and just a single exposure to the virus can lead to infection."
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.
Human herpes virus 2 (HHV2) is also called herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2). It typically causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection. However, it can also cause cold sores in the facial area. Like HHV1, the HHV2 infection is contagious and is spread by skin-to-skin contact. The main route of transmission is through sexual contact, as the virus does not survive very long outside the body.
The risk of transmission from mother to baby is highest if the mother becomes infected around the time of delivery (30% to 60%), since insufficient time will have occurred for the generation and transfer of protective maternal antibodies before the birth of the child. In contrast, the risk falls to 3% if the infection is recurrent, and is 1–3% if the woman is seropositive for both HSV-1 and HSV-2, and is less than 1% if no lesions are visible. Women seropositive for only one type of HSV are only half as likely to transmit HSV as infected seronegative mothers. To prevent neonatal infections, seronegative women are recommended to avoid unprotected oral-genital contact with an HSV-1-seropositive partner and conventional sex with a partner having a genital infection during the last trimester of pregnancy. Mothers infected with HSV are advised to avoid procedures that would cause trauma to the infant during birth (e.g. fetal scalp electrodes, forceps, and vacuum extractors) and, should lesions be present, to elect caesarean section to reduce exposure of the child to infected secretions in the birth canal. The use of antiviral treatments, such as aciclovir, given from the 36th week of pregnancy, limits HSV recurrence and shedding during childbirth, thereby reducing the need for caesarean section.
Human herpes virus 6 (HHV6) is a recently observed agent found in the blood cells of a few patients with a variety of diseases. It causes roseola (a viral disease causing high fever and a skin rash in small children) and a variety of other illnesses associated with fever in that age group. This infection accounts for many of the cases of convulsions associated with fever in infancy (febrile seizures).
Herpes virus type 5 is also known as cytomegalovirus. It is the major cause of mononucleosis. Mononucleosis causes symptoms similar to infectious mononucleosis. It is spread via blood transfusion, breast-feeding, organ transplants, and sexual contact. The virus causes diarrhea, or severe vision problems and even leads to AIDS. People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to these diseases.
Until the 1980s serological tests for antibodies to HSV were rarely useful to diagnosis and not routinely used in clinical practice. The older IgM serologic assay could not differentiate between antibodies generated in response to HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection. However, a glycoprotein G-specific (IgG) HSV test introduced in the 1980s is more than 98% specific at discriminating HSV-1 from HSV-2.
When herpes flares up again, it is called a "recurrence" or "outbreak." Herpes does not always recur, and if it does recur, the timing and severity are different from person to person. Some people rarely have recurrences. Others have them often. Herpes is most likely to recur in the first year after infection. Recurrences may be more frequent for people with weakened immune systems.
“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.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 are transmitted by direct physical contact with a sore on an infected person. Facial or lip herpes is most often contracted by kissing someone with a cold sore. Genital herpes is most often contracted during sexual intercourse with a person who has an active genital sore. Genital herpes can also be contracted during or genital sex if a partner has labial herpes.
Primary orofacial herpes is readily identified by examination of persons with no previous history of lesions and contact with an individual with known HSV infection. The appearance and distribution of sores is typically presents as multiple, round, superficial oral ulcers, accompanied by acute gingivitis. Adults with atypical presentation are more difficult to diagnose. Prodromal symptoms that occur before the appearance of herpetic lesions help differentiate HSV symptoms from the similar symptoms of other disorders, such as allergic stomatitis. When lesions do not appear inside the mouth, primary orofacial herpes is sometimes mistaken for impetigo, a bacterial infection. Common mouth ulcers (aphthous ulcer) also resemble intraoral herpes, but do not present a vesicular stage.
Worldwide rates of either HSV-1 and/or HSV-2 are between 60 and 95% in adults. HSV-1 is more common than HSV-2, with rates of both increasing as people age. HSV-1 rates are between 70% and 80% in populations of low socioeconomic status and 40% to 60% in populations of improved socioeconomic status. An estimated 536 million people or 16% of the population worldwide were infected with HSV-2 as of 2003 with greater rates among women and in those in the developing world. Rates of infection are determined by the presence of antibodies against either viral species.
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.
Although it’s not caused by either the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus, herpes zoster falls under the umbrella of herpes diseases. Also known as shingles, it’s an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, and is characterized by the development of painful skin rashes on one side of the face or body.23 These rashes are red patches of fluid-filled blisters that tend to crack easily.24,25