Varicella-zoster is transmitted though the mucosa of the respiratory system, specifically the upper respiratory tract, or the conjunctiva of the eye. Initial replication takes place in the regional lymph nodes, and then the virus spreads and replication begins in the liver and spleen. The virus is then transported to the skin where the rash develops. The incubation period of varicella is about 10 to 21 days.
Some people have recurrent outbreaks with the so-called “classic” blister-like herpes lesions that crust over, or with painful sores. In recurrent herpes, however, this process usually takes about half the time it does in first episodes. In addition, many people have very subtle forms of recurrent herpes that heal up in a matter of days. And lastly, herpes is capable of reactivating without producing any visible lesions (asymptomatic reactivation).
The causes of reactivation are uncertain, but several potential triggers have been documented. A 2009 study showed the protein VP16 plays a key role in reactivation of the dormant virus. Changes in the immune system during menstruation may play a role in HSV-1 reactivation. Concurrent infections, such as viral upper respiratory tract infection or other febrile diseases, can cause outbreaks. Reactivation due to other infections is the likely source of the historic terms 'cold sore' and 'fever blister'.
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.
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.
As with almost all sexually transmitted infections, women are more susceptible to acquiring genital HSV-2 than men. On an annual basis, without the use of antivirals or condoms, the transmission risk of HSV-2 from infected male to female is about 8–11%. This is believed to be due to the increased exposure of mucosal tissue to potential infection sites. Transmission risk from infected female to male is around 4–5% annually. Suppressive antiviral therapy reduces these risks by 50%. Antivirals also help prevent the development of symptomatic HSV in infection scenarios, meaning the infected partner will be seropositive but symptom-free by about 50%. Condom use also reduces the transmission risk significantly. Condom use is much more effective at preventing male-to-female transmission than vice versa. Previous HSV-1 infection may reduce the risk for acquisition of HSV-2 infection among women by a factor of three, although the one study that states this has a small sample size of 14 transmissions out of 214 couples.
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.