When referring to herpes, most people think about the oral and genital varieties caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Generally, HSV-1 causes oral herpes and HSV-2 causes genital herpes. But either type can cause sores on the face or genital area.
If you have either virus, you’re no stranger to blister-like lesions that may develop around your genital area or mouth.
Both viruses are contagious. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Oral herpes can transmit from person to person through kissing.
Herpes symptoms can include pain and itching. Blisters may ooze or crust over. Some infections are harmless and don’t cause complications.
Still, you may have questions about possible dangers of a herpes infection. You may even wonder whether it’s possible to die from herpes or its complications. Let’s take a look.
There’s no current cure for oral herpes (cold sores). The virus remains in your system once it’s transmitted.
Blisters can disappear and reappear throughout your life. When you don’t have visible symptoms, it means the virus is inactive, but you can still transmit it to others. Many people don’t develop visible symptoms.
For the most part, oral herpes is a mild infection. Sores usually clear up on their own without treatment.
In rare cases, complications can occur. This is more likely to happen in people who have a weakened immune system, perhaps due to age or a chronic illness.
Possible complications can include dehydration if drinking becomes painful due to oral blisters. If left untreated, dehydration can lead to serious problems. This certainly isn’t likely to occur. Just make sure you’re drinking enough, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Another incredibly rare complication of oral herpes is encephalitis. This occurs when the viral infection travels to the brain and causes inflammation. Encephalitis isn’t usually life-threatening. It may only cause mild flu-like symptoms.
Minor complications of oral herpes include a skin infection if the virus comes in contact with broken skin. This can occur if you have a cut or eczema. It can sometimes be a medical emergency if cold sores cover widespread areas of skin.
Children with oral herpes may develop herpes whitlow. If a child sucks their thumb, blisters can form around the finger.
If the virus spreads to the eyes, swelling and inflammation can occur near the eyelid. An infection that spreads to the cornea can lead to blindness.
It’s important to frequently wash your hands during an outbreak. See a doctor if you develop signs of a skin or eye infection.
Likewise, there’s no current cure for genital herpes. These infections can also be mild and harmless. Even so, there’s the risk of complications.
Minor complications with genital herpes include inflammation around the bladder and rectum area. This can lead to swelling and pain. If swelling prevents emptying the bladder, you may need a catheter.
Meningitis is another possible, though unlikely, complication. It occurs when the viral infection spreads and causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
Viral meningitis is typically a mild infection. It may clear on its own.
Like oral herpes, encephalitis is also a possible complication of genital herpes, but it’s even more rare.
Keep in mind that having genital herpes increases the risk of other STIs. Blisters can cause breaks in the skin, making it easier for certain microbes to enter the body.
Even though genital herpes doesn’t have serious complications for most people, the HSV-2 virus that causes it is dangerous to babies born to a mother who has it.
Neonatal herpes is a
Treatment typically consists of antivirals to suppress the virus.
If there’s the risk of passing the virus to a newborn, doctors may recommend a cesarean delivery.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 are common types of herpes. However, other types of the virus can also have potentially serious complications.
Varicella-zoster virus (HSV-3)
This is the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. A chickenpox infection is usually mild. But the virus can progress and cause potentially life-threatening complications, like pneumonia or toxic shock syndrome, in people with a weakened immune system.
The shingles virus may cause brain inflammation (encephalitis) if left untreated.
Epstein-Barr virus (HSV-4)
This is the virus that causes infectious mononucleosis. Mono isn’t usually serious, and some infections go unnoticed.
In people with a weakened immune system, the disease may lead to encephalitis or inflammation of the heart muscles. The virus has also been linked to lymphoma.
Cytomegalovirus (CMV) (HSV-5)
This virus is an infection that also causes mono. It doesn’t usually cause problems in healthy people. If you have a compromised immune system, there’s the risk for encephalitis and pneumonia.
The virus can also pass to newborns during pregnancy or birth. Babies with congenital CMV are at risk for:
- poor liver function
- premature birth
Oral and genital herpes are both treatable conditions.
Prescription antiviral medications for genital herpes can reduce the frequency and duration of outbreaks.
These medications can be taken only when symptoms appear, or taken daily to prevent an outbreak. Options include acyclovir (Zovirax) and valacyclovir (Valtrex).
Oral herpes symptoms may clear up without treatment in about two to four weeks. Your doctor can prescribe an antiviral to speed up the healing process. These include:
- acyclovir (Xerese, Zovirax)
- valacyclovir (Valtrex)
- famciclovir (Famvir)
- penciclovir (Denavir)
To self-treat at home, apply a cool compress to the sore. Use over-the-counter cold sore remedies to relieve pain and itching.
Avoid physical contact during an outbreak to prevent the spread of both viruses. Medication can also prevent transmission. Keep in mind, however, that it’s still possible to pass herpes to others when there aren’t visible sores.
If you receive a diagnosis with oral or genital herpes, you may fear the worst. But treatment can minimize outbreaks and lower the risk of developing complications.
Contact your doctor right away if you have an active herpes outbreak and develop unusual symptoms.