HSV infection causes several distinct medical disorders. Common infection of the skin or mucosa may affect the face and mouth (orofacial herpes), genitalia (genital herpes), or hands (herpetic whitlow). More serious disorders occur when the virus infects and damages the eye (herpes keratitis), or invades the central nervous system, damaging the brain (herpes encephalitis). People with immature or suppressed immune systems, such as newborns, transplant recipients, or people with AIDS, are prone to severe complications from HSV infections. HSV infection has also been associated with cognitive deficits of bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer's disease, although this is often dependent on the genetics of the infected person.
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.
HSV asymptomatic shedding occurs at some time in most individuals infected with herpes. It can occur more than a week before or after a symptomatic recurrence in 50% of cases. Virus enters into susceptible cells by entry receptors such as nectin-1, HVEM and 3-O sulfated heparan sulfate. Infected people who show no visible symptoms may still shed and transmit viruses through their skin; asymptomatic shedding may represent the most common form of HSV-2 transmission. Asymptomatic shedding is more frequent within the first 12 months of acquiring HSV. Concurrent infection with HIV increases the frequency and duration of asymptomatic shedding. Some individuals may have much lower patterns of shedding, but evidence supporting this is not fully verified; no significant differences are seen in the frequency of asymptomatic shedding when comparing persons with one to 12 annual recurrences to those with no recurrences.
Pain, sore lips, burning sensation, tingling, or itching occurs at the infection site before the sores appear. These are the early symptoms (prodrome). Sometimes these symptoms happen prior to the appearance of sores, bumps, pimple-like lesions, or blisters (herpes or herpetic stomatitis). Thereafter, clusters or groups of painful blisters (also termed fever blisters) or vesicles erupt or ooze with a clear to yellowish fluid that may develop into a yellowish crust. These blisters break down rapidly and appear as tiny, shallow gray ulcers on a red base. Fever blisters are smaller than canker sores. A few days later, they become crusted or scabbed and appear drier and more yellow.
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.
Prodrome: Early in the phase of reactivation (also called an outbreak), many people experience an itching, tingling, or painful feeling in the area where their recurrent lesions will develop. This sort of warning symptom – called a “prodrome” – often comes a day or two before lesions appear. To be on the safe side, it’s best to assume virus is active (and, therefore, can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact) during these times.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
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.
Jamie*, 29, is HSV-positive and contracted herpes from her husband. But, she explains, “He only had one outbreak when he was young and that was it. So he didn't realize what it was.” Jamie was infected three years into their relationship simply because he had outbreaks that infrequently. She says, “I was worried he had cheated on me, but then found similar stories online, and our outbreak patterns underscore that what happened is very possible.”
According to Cullins, there are no standardized guidelines from the CDC for suppressive therapy through medication, but it is an option that people with HSV should talk to their healthcare providers about. “If a person knows they have had herpes in the past that has affected their genitals, they can take suppressive therapy — for example, 500 mg of valacyclovir daily.” While it won’t prevent outbreaks, it will prevent asymptomatic virus shedding. Preventing exposure to the virus through both medication and a physical barrier can be very effective.