Herpes, whether on the mouth or genitals, is caused by a family of over 70 related viruses. These viral infections cause small, fluid-filled blisters to develop on the skin and mucous membranes. There are actually eight different types of herpes simplex viruses that both children and adults can acquire, but two are by far the most common: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
With the first outbreak of herpes virus infection, an individual may also experience nonspecific flu-like symptoms like fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and muscle aches. It is also possible to have herpes virus infection without having any symptoms or signs, or having signs and symptoms that are so mild that the infection is mistaken for another condition.
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.
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
Herpes is contracted through direct contact with an active lesion or body fluid of an infected person. Herpes transmission occurs between discordant partners; a person with a history of infection (HSV seropositive) can pass the virus to an HSV seronegative person. Herpes simplex virus 2 is typically contracted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, but can also be contracted by exposure to infected saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or the fluid from herpetic blisters. To infect a new individual, HSV travels through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Even microscopic abrasions on mucous membranes are sufficient to allow viral entry.
Laboratory testing is often used to confirm a diagnosis of genital herpes. Laboratory tests include culture of the virus, direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) studies to detect virus, skin biopsy, and polymerase chain reaction to test for presence of viral DNA. Although these procedures produce highly sensitive and specific diagnoses, their high costs and time constraints discourage their regular use in clinical practice.
A scary finding is that more cases of genital herpes than ever before are now being caused by HSV-1 (the type most people assume only causes mouth sores), and about 85 percent of people with genital herpes don’t even know it. (7) Studies show that about 50 percent of the new genital herpes infections in young adults are due to HSV-1 and about 40 percent in older adults. The fact that most people don’t ever find out they’re infected is one of the reasons that transmission rates are steadily climbing.