Oral herpes is a viral infection mainly of the mouth area and lips caused by a specific type of the herpes simplex virus. Oral herpes is also termed HSV-1, type 1 herpes simplex virus, or herpes labialis. The virus causes painful sores on the upper and lower lips, gums, tongue, roof of the mouth, inside the cheeks or nose, and sometimes on the face, chin, and neck. Infrequently, it may cause genital lesions. It also can cause symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fever, and muscle aches. People commonly refer to the infection as "cold sores."
There are two types of herpes simplex viruses (HSV), they are termed HSV-1 and HSV-2. These two viruses have distinctly different DNA, and both cause oral and genital lesions. However, HSV-1 causes about 80% of all oral lesions and only about 20% of genital lesions while HSV-2 causes the reverse (about 80% genital and 20% oral). Studies also suggest that in adolescents, up to 40% of genital herpes is caused by HSV-1 because of reported increased oral/genital contact (transmission by oral sex).
“Someone having HSV doesn't mean that they were reckless or irresponsible with their sex life,” says Sara, age 30. “I used condoms with all my partners, and I still caught it.” For Jamie, who contracted herpes from her husband three years into their monogamous relationship, he was her first and only sexual partner. And she says that he contracted it from one of his very first sexual encounters. No matter how and why someone contracted the virus, it doesn't erase their humanity and right to respect.
If you have recently made it through a first episode that consisted of full-blown symptoms, you know something about signs and symptoms already. The good news is that the first episode is almost always the worst that HSV throws your way. Signs and symptoms of recurrent episodes (when they occur) tend to be milder and heal much more quickly, typically within two to twelve days.
Herpes sores follow a similar cyclical pattern and appear first like pimples that turn into small vesicles. Then, the skin becomes crusty, and eventually a scab is formed. It can take up to several weeks for the lesions to heal, during which time there may be one outbreak followed by another. Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of an outbreak, such as: asthma medication, lack of sleep, stress, decreased immunity and ultraviolet rays.
Condoms offer moderate protection against HSV-2 in both men and women, with consistent condom users having a 30%-lower risk of HSV-2 acquisition compared with those who never use condoms. A female condom can provide greater protection than the male condom, as it covers the labia. The virus cannot pass through a synthetic condom, but a male condom's effectiveness is limited because herpes ulcers may appear on areas not covered by it. Neither type of condom prevents contact with the scrotum, anus, buttocks, or upper thighs, areas that may come in contact with ulcers or genital secretions during sexual activity. Protection against herpes simplex depends on the site of the ulcer; therefore, if ulcers appear on areas not covered by condoms, abstaining from sexual activity until the ulcers are fully healed is one way to limit risk of transmission. The risk is not eliminated, however, as viral shedding capable of transmitting infection may still occur while the infected partner is asymptomatic. The use of condoms or dental dams also limits the transmission of herpes from the genitals of one partner to the mouth of the other (or vice versa) during oral sex. When one partner has a herpes simplex infection and the other does not, the use of antiviral medication, such as valaciclovir, in conjunction with a condom, further decreases the chances of transmission to the uninfected partner. Topical microbicides that contain chemicals that directly inactivate the virus and block viral entry are being investigated.
Herpes has been known for at least 2,000 years. Emperor Tiberius is said to have banned kissing in Rome for a time due to so many people having cold sores. In the 16th-century Romeo and Juliet, blisters "o'er ladies' lips" are mentioned. In the 18th century, it was so common among prostitutes that it was called "a vocational disease of women". The term 'herpes simplex' appeared in Richard Boulton's A System of Rational and Practical Chirurgery in 1713, where the terms 'herpes miliaris' and 'herpes exedens' also appeared. Herpes was not found to be a virus until the 1940s.
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.
Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes. See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body. How do you know if you have herpes? Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.
The cell this virus targets is the B lymphocyte. These cells mature in the bone marrow and are a type of mononuclear leukocyte cells - white blood cells with a one-lobed nucleus. The incubation period for the Epstein – Barr Virus (EBV) is about 30 to 50 days, and patients typically have enlarged lymph nodes and spleens. Some patients have signs of hepatitis.
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.