Oral herpes, commonly referred to as mouth herpes, is a viral infection of the mouth and gums primarily by the Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) but may also be due to the genital variant (HSV-2). It is also known as recurrent herpetic stomatitis or acute herpetic gingivostomatitis. The infection of the mouth typically causes small fluid-filled blisters known as vesicles on the roof of the mouth (palate), inside of the cheeks (buccal muscosa), tongue, gums and even the lips (herpes labialis). It may also occur on the skin around the mouth and extend to the nose and into the nasal cavity.
However, there is much more to the herpes virus than just chicken pox or genital herpes. For instance, after an active infection, the virus is shed (eliminated) in the urine and feces for up to several months (sometimes years in the case of the cytomegalovirus) after the active infection has resolved. This means the infected person is still contagious, which is what makes this virus so contagious. It can easily be transferred when the patient is asymptomatic.
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.
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).
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.
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Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.
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.
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.
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.