The broader issue is whether, if you do get infected, herpes will ultimately harm your health. Although I don’t want to trivialize this infection, in your general scheme of health, it probably will not. The major concern is that if you are pregnant and develop a new outbreak of herpes, the virus can be transmitted to the fetus, especially during vaginal delivery. What’s more, people with genital herpes have a much greater risk of acquiring HIV if they are exposed. (It’s theorized that the lesion causes microscopic breaks in the skin, allowing HIV to enter the body.)
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.
To reduce the chance of acquiring HSV-1, avoid touching saliva, skin, or mucous membranes of people who have HSV-1 lesions. Prevention of genital HSV may be accomplished by latex condoms, but protection is never 100%. Spermicides do not protect against HSV. Some clinicians recommend using dental dams (small latex squares) during oral sex, but like condoms, they are not 100% protective.
HSV-2 is contracted through forms of sexual contact with a person who has HSV-2. An estimated 20 percent of sexually active adults in the United States are infected with HSV-2, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). HSV-2 infections are spread through contact with a herpes sore. In contrast, most people get HSV-1 from an infected person who is asymptomatic, or does not have sores.
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.
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
An important source of support is the National Herpes Resource Center which arose from the work of the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). The ASHA was created in 1914 to in response to the increase in sexually transmitted diseases that had spread during World War I. During the 1970s, there was an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. One of the diseases that increased dramatically was genital herpes. In response, ASHA created the National Herpes Resource Center in 1979. The HRC was designed to meet the growing need for education and awareness about the virus. One of the projects of The Herpes Resource Center (HRC) was to create a network of local support (HELP) groups. The goal of these HELP groups was to provide a safe, confidential environment where participants can get accurate information and share experiences, fears, and feelings with others who are concerned about herpes.
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.
It should not be confused with conditions caused by other viruses in the herpesviridae family such as herpes zoster, which is caused by varicella zoster virus. The differential diagnosis includes hand, foot and mouth disease due to similar lesions on the skin. Lymphangioma circumscriptum and dermatitis herpetiformis may also have a similar appearance.
A person may show symptoms within days after contracting genital herpes, or it may take weeks, months, or years. Some people may have a severe outbreak within days after contracting the virus while others may have a first outbreak so mild that they do not notice it. Because of these possibilities, it can be difficult for people to know when and from whom they may have contracted the virus.