Herpes Simplex

Written by Elly Dock | Published on June 22, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP on July 22, 2012

What Is Herpes Simplex?

The herpes simplex virus, also known as HSV, is an infection that causes herpes. Herpes can appear in various parts of the body, most commonly on the genitals or mouth. There are two types of the herpes simplex virus. HSV-1, also known as oral herpes, can cause cold sores and fever blisters around the mouth and on the face. HSV-2 is generally responsible for genital herpes outbreaks.

What Causes Herpes Simplex?

The herpes simplex virus is a contagious virus that can be passed from person to person through direct contact. Children will often contract HSV-1 from early contact with an infected adult. They then carry the virus with them for the rest of their life.

Infection with HSV-1 can happen from general interactions such as eating from the same utensils, sharing lip balm, or kissing. The virus spreads more quickly when an infected person is experiencing an outbreak. Additionally, it is possible to get genital herpes from HSV-1 if the individual has had cold sores and performed sexual activities during that time.

HSV-2 is contracted through forms of sexual contact with a person who has HSV-2. It is estimated that around 20 percent of sexually active adults within the United States have been infected with HSV-2, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). (AAD) While HSV-2 infections are spread by coming into contact with a herpes sore, the AAD reports that most people get HSV-1 from an infected person who is asymptomatic, or does not have sores.

Who Is At Risk of Developing Herpes Simplex Infections?

Anyone can be infected with HSV, regardless of age. Your risk is determined almost entirely based on exposure to the infection.

In cases of sexually transmitted HSV, people are more at risk when they participate in risky sexual behavior without the use of protection, such as condoms. Other risk factors for HSV-2 include:

  • having multiple sex partners
  • being female
  • having another sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • having a weakened immune system

If a mother is having an outbreak of genital herpes at the time of childbirth, it can expose the baby to both types of HSV, and may put them at risk for serious complications.

Recognizing the Signs of Herpes Simplex

It is important to understand that although someone may not have visible sores or symptoms, they may still be infected by the virus and may transmit the virus to others. Some of the symptoms associated with this virus include:

  • blistering sores (in the mouth or on the genitals)
  • pain during urination (genital herpes)
  • itching

Additionally, you may experience many symptoms that are similar to the flu. These symptoms can include fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, tiredness, and lack of appetite. HSV can also spread to the eyes, causing a condition called herpes keratitis. This can cause symptoms such as eye pain, discharge, and a gritty feeling in the eye.

How Is Herpes Simplex Diagnosed?

This type of virus is generally diagnosed with a physical exam. Your doctor may check your body for sores and ask you about some of your current symptoms. Your doctor may also request HSV testing, also known as a herpes culture, to confirm the diagnosis if you have sores on your genitals. During this test, your doctor will take a swab sample of fluid from the sore and then send it to a laboratory for testing.

Blood tests looking for antibodies to HSV-1 and HSV-2 may also be used to diagnose these infections. This is especially helpful when there are no sores present.

How Is Herpes Simplex Treated?

There is currently no cure for this virus. Treatment focuses on getting rid of sores and limiting outbreaks.

It is possible that your sores will disappear without treatment. However, your doctor may determine that you need one or more of the following medications:

  • acyclovir
  • famciclovir
  • valacyclovir

These medications can help infected individuals reduce the risk of spreading the virus to other people. The medications also help to lower the intensity and frequency of outbreaks. These medications may come in oral (pill) form, or may be applied as a cream. For severe outbreaks, these medications may also be administered by injection.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for Herpes Simplex?

People who become infected with HSV will have the virus for the rest of their lives. Even if it does not manifest symptoms, the virus will continue to live in an infected person’s nerve cells. Some people may experience regular outbreaks. Others will only experience one outbreak after they have been infected, after which the virus may become dormant. Even if a virus is dormant, an outbreak can be triggered by certain stimuli, such as:

  • stress
  • menstrual periods
  • fever or illness
  • sun exposure or sunburn

It is believed that the outbreaks may become less intense over time because the body starts creating antibodies. If a generally healthy individual has been infected with the virus, there are usually no complications.

Preventing the Spread of Herpes Simplex Infections

Although there is no cure for herpes, you can take precautionary measures to avoid becoming infected, or to prevent spreading HSV to another person.

If you are experiencing an outbreak of HSV-1, try to avoid direct physical contact with other people. Do not share any items that can pass the virus around, such as cups, towels, silverware, clothing, makeup, or lip balm. Doctors also recommend that infected individuals should not participate in oral sex, kissing, or any other type of sexual activity, during an outbreak. Additionally, if your hands have come into contact with your sores, you should wash them thoroughly and apply medication with cotton swabs to reduce contact.

Individuals with HSV-2 should avoid any type of sexual activity with other people during an outbreak. If the individual is not experiencing symptoms but has previously been diagnosed with the virus, a condom should be used during intercourse. Although a condom may be used, it may still be possible to pass herpes to your partner from uncovered skin. Women who are pregnant and infected may have to take medicine to prevent the virus from infecting their unborn babies.

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