What is the herpes virus?
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.
Signs and symptoms of herpes
Both kinds of herpes cause outbreaks of painful sores on the skin. Symptoms of herpes include:
Oral herpes sores
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.
Although they usually show up around the mouth or genitals, herpes sores can appear anywhere on the body.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
At home, you have a few options to reduce the discomfort from herpes sores. Some options you can try include:
- Antiviral creams: You can buy antiviral cold sore medicine without a prescription. Products that contain docosanol or benzyl alcohol are helpful.
- Ice: Sucking ice chips or applying cold compresses to the sores can reduce pain.
- 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.
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.
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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."
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