What is the herpes virus?

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is a highly contagious virus that commonly causes sores on the mouth or genitals. Once you have it, it stays in your body forever. No medication can cure it completely, though you can control it through medications and home care.
Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is a highly contagious virus that commonly causes sores on the mouth or genitals. Once you have it, it stays in your body forever. No medication can cure it completely, though you can control it through medications and home care.

Herpes is a virus that causes skin sores. The medical term for it is the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). It most commonly produces sores on the mouth or genitals.

Herpes is very common and doesn’t usually cause severe health problems. However, it is very contagious and there is no cure. 

There are two types of herpes: oral and genital. Oral herpes is called HSV-1, and genital herpes is called HSV-2.

Signs and symptoms of herpes

Both kinds of herpes cause outbreaks of painful sores on the skin. Symptoms of herpes include:

Oral herpes sores 

Sometimes called cold sores, HSV-1 produces painful sores that look like blisters at first. They eventually burst and crust over. It usually takes a week to 10 days for the sores to clear up.

Genital herpes sores

The sores that appear in the genital area can come from HSV-1 or HSV-2. Like the sores on the mouth, they start as painful blisters, then dry up and heal over time. 

Other sores 

Although they usually show up around the mouth or genitals, herpes sores can appear anywhere on the body.

Flu-like symptoms 

During a herpes outbreak, you might feel other symptoms such as fever, tiredness, or body aches.

Not all people who have herpes have frequent outbreaks. Some people might have a single outbreak then never show symptoms again. The virus may stay dormant in their body.

Causes of herpes

You can catch both kinds of herpes through direct contact with an affected person.

Direct contact

HSV-1 carriers can pass it along even if they don’t have symptoms. Any skin-to-skin contact can transmit the virus.

Touching an open herpes sore then touching another part of your skin can spread herpes to new areas, including your eyes.

Take care not to touch sores and wash your hands immediately if you do touch one.

Sexual contact

People usually get HSV-2 through sexual contact. Oral, anal, and genital sex can all transmit herpes. You can get HSV-2 even if your partner doesn’t have any symptoms of the virus.

It also is possible to get HSV-1 on your genitals through oral sex.

Pregnancy

Pregnant women can pass herpes on to their babies. In some cases, this can cause serious problems. If you are pregnant, you should discuss your herpes risk with your doctor.

Many people get HSV-1 as babies or children from non-sexual contact with saliva from an adult who already has the virus. 

Anyone can get herpes, though people with weakened immune systems can be more susceptible to herpes infections.

Some people have periodic outbreaks. Other illnesses, sun exposure, menstrual periods, or stress can trigger these outbreaks. 

People usually find that their first outbreak is the worst one. During that outbreak, the virus moves from the skin cells to nerve cells, where it will stay forever. Later outbreaks are milder and not as painful. Some people have a tingling sensation before a new outbreak starts.

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Diagnosis for herpes

If you have an outbreak of sores, your doctor can examine them to diagnose herpes. They may take a swab from the sore to test it for the presence of the virus.

If you don’t have an outbreak, your doctor can order blood tests to diagnose herpes.

Treatments for herpes

Herpes is not a virus that goes away. Once you have it, it stays in your body forever. No medication can cure it completely, though you can control it.

There are ways to relieve the discomfort from the sores and medications to reduce outbreaks. 

Medications

There are three prescription antiviral medicines your doctor might give you. They can all decrease the severity and frequency of outbreaks. They also can help prevent you from spreading the virus to other people.

The medications are:

  1. Acyclovir
  2. Famciclovir
  3. Valacyclovir

Home care 

At home, you have a few options to reduce the discomfort from herpes sores. Some options you can try include:

  1. Antiviral creams: You can buy antiviral cold sore medicine without a prescription. Products that contain docosanol or benzyl alcohol are helpful. 
  2. Ice: Sucking ice chips or applying cold compresses to the sores can reduce pain.
  3. Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain medicines can help. Topical medications that contain benzocaine, lidocaine, or dibucaine can reduce pain from sores. Oral pain medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen might also help. 

If you have an outbreak or think you might be about to get an outbreak near your mouth, you should avoid kissing, oral sex, and sharing toothbrushes, towels, cups, and silverware.

If you or your partner has an outbreak of genital herpes, or if either of you think you may have an outbreak soon, you should not have sex.

Condoms can reduce the risk of spreading herpes. However, even with condoms, there is still a chance of transmitting herpes if the sores are in a place that the condom doesn’t cover.

Wash your hands well after touching sores or areas where you think a sore might be about to appear.

If you are pregnant, tell your doctor if you or your partner has genital herpes.

How do you get genital herpes?

Herpes is a common infection caused by herpes virus. The virus causing herpes is of two types, namely, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

Genital herpes is a type of sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused mostly by HSV-2. Although HSV-1 can cause herpes rash in the genital area, it is less frequent compared with HSV-2. HSV-1 spreads by skin-to-skin contact, whereas HSV-2 spreads by sexual contact. Genital herpes rash is present on or around the genitals (vulva, vagina, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, butt and inner thighs). When rash is in or on around the lips, mouth and throat, it is called oral herpes.

Genital herpes is contagious and can spread through skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal and oral sex performed without a condom or dental dam. Transmission usually occurs when a person with infection does not have visible lesions. Thus, they may infect others without even knowing that they have the infection. The infection can affect any part of the body, although it is most commonly seen on the genitals, mouth or anus. Once infected, the virus may stay in the affected person for life because the infection cannot be cured. Blisters may heal with time within two to three weeks, but the virus lies dormant inside the nerves causing occasional flare-ups.

Herpes virus dies quickly outside the body. You cannot get herpes from holding hands, hugging, coughingsneezing or sitting on the toilet seat.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Most people with genital herpes exhibit no symptoms or very mild symptoms that may be overlooked or mistaken for another skin condition. Herpes lesions mainly appear as one or more fluid-filled rash (vesicles) or small blisters. The rash typically occurs on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. Symptoms may occur after a period of 2 to 12 days after the infection. The rash is painful and may be associated with a burning or itching sensation. Symptoms are usually worst in the first episode. Recurrent outbreaks may be shorter and milder than the initial one. Most people with herpes get fewer outbreaks as time goes on, and some people stop having them altogether.

The most typical symptoms of genital herpes are a group of itchy or painful blisters on the vagina, vulva, cervix (the neck of the uterus), penis, buttocks, anus or inner side of the thighs. These blisters may burst to form sores. Other symptoms of herpes include:

How can I prevent getting genital herpes?

Genital herpes spreads from sexual skin-to-skin contact with an infected person through vaginal, anal and oral sex. The best way to avoid genital herpes is avoiding any contact with another person’s mouth and genitals. Practice safe sex by using protection such as condoms and dental dams to lower infection risk. Condoms lower your risk considerably but may not provide 100 percent protection because herpes virus can survive on areas not protected by condoms such as the buttocks, cheeks, upper thighs, labia and scrotum.

Although herpes spreads more easily during an outbreak, the infection can spread even when there are no symptoms. Hence, use condoms if you or your partner have herpes infection despite no symptoms. You must, however, avoid having sex (oral, anal or vaginal) during an outbreak because sores may be on various sites not covered by a condom. The outbreak may be preceded by symptoms such as burning, itching or a tingling feeling.

If you are infected, ask your doctor about herpes medications because they lower your risks of spreading herpes. Avoid touching the sore because this can spread the infection to other body parts. Wash your hands with soap and water if you have touched a sore accidentally or while applying medications. Avoid kissing if you have a sore in your mouth or on your lips. Having herpes also increases your risk of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and vice versa. Hence, always follow safe sex practices such as wearing a condom if you have herpes or another STDs.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/5/2022
References
American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Cold Sores: Tips for Managing."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Causes."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Diagnosis and Treatment."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Overview."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Signs and Symptoms."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Tips for Managing."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "STD Facts - Genital Herpes"

WHO: "Herpes simplex virus"