Herpes gladiatorum, also known as mat herpes, is a common skin condition caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). It’s the same virus that causes cold sores around the mouth. Once infected, the virus stays with you for life. You can have periods when the virus is inactive and not contagious, but you can also have flare-ups at any time.

Herpes gladiatorum is particularly associated with wrestling and other contact sports. In 1989, dozens of high school wrestlers were infected with the virus at a wrestling camp in Minnesota. The virus can be transmitted through other types of skin contact too.

Herpes gladiatorum can affect any part of your body. If your eyes become infected, it should be treated as a medical emergency.

Symptoms usually appear about a week after exposure to HSV-1. A fever and swollen glands may precede the appearance of sores or blisters on your skin. You may feel a tingling sensation in the area affected by the virus. A collection of lesions or blisters will appear on your skin for up to 10 days or so before healing. They may or may not be painful.

You will likely have periods where you have no obvious symptoms. When there are no open sores or blisters, you’re still contagious. You should talk with your doctor about how to check for symptoms and what precautions you should take with others during periods in which you have an outbreak and when you appear to be symptom-free.

An outbreak may occur once a year, once a month, or somewhere in between.

Herpes gladiatorum is spread through skin-on-skin contact. If you kiss someone with a herpes cold sore on their lips, you could become infected. Although in theory sharing a cup or other beverage container, a cellphone, or eating utensils with an infected person may allow the virus to spread, it’s less likely.

You can also catch HSV-1 by playing sports that involve a lot of skin-to-skin contact, as well as through sexual activity. This is a highly contagious disease.

Read more: Contagious skin rashes »

An estimated 30 to 90 percent of adults in the United States have been exposed to HSV-1. Many of these people never develop symptoms. If you wrestle, play rugby, or participate in a similar contact sport, you’re at risk. You’re at extremely high risk for the condition if you’re sexually involved with a person who has HSV-1.

If you have HSV-1, your risk of having an outbreak is higher during stressful periods or when your immune system is weakened during an illness.

If you develop a cold sore or you have other symptoms of herpes gladiatorum, you should avoid physical contact with other people and seek a medical evaluation. This will help minimize the impact on you and help reduce the risk of spreading the infection.

A doctor can examine your sores and often diagnose your condition without any testing. However, your doctor will likely take a small tissue sample from one of the sores to be analyzed in a lab. Your doctor can test the tissue sample to confirm a diagnosis.

You may be advised to take a blood test in cases where it’s difficult to distinguish HSV-1 from another skin condition. The test will look for certain antibodies that appear in the blood of people with herpes. A blood test can also be useful if you don’t have any obvious symptoms but are concerned that you may have been exposed to the virus.

Mild cases of herpes gladiatorum may not need any treatment. You should, however, avoid irritating the sores if they’re still visible. Even if your lesions are dry and fading, you may need to avoid wrestling or any contact that could cause them to flare up.

For more serious cases, prescription antiviral medications can help speed up your recovery time. Among the drugs often prescribed for HSV-1 are acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir). The drugs may be prescribed as a preventive measure. Even when you’re not having a flare-up, taking an oral antiviral medication may help prevent outbreaks.

If you’re sexually involved with someone diagnosed with HSV-1, talk with your doctor about how to prevent infection. You’ll probably be advised to avoid contact during periods when sores are visible. You should know, though, that some people may have the virus, but never have symptoms. These people can still spread the virus to others.

Herpes simplex is one of the sexually transmitted diseases you should be tested for before beginning a sexual relationship.

If you’re a wrestler or other athlete at higher risk for HSV-1, you should practice good hygiene. Safe practices include:

  • showering immediately after practice or a game
  • using your own towel and making sure it’s washed regularly in hot water and bleach
  • using your own razor, deodorant, and other personal items, and never sharing your personal care items with other people
  • leaving sores alone, including avoiding picking or squeezing them
  • using clean uniforms, mats, and other equipment

In situations where you may be at high risk for exposure to the virus, such as at a wrestling camp, you may be able to obtain a prescription for an antiviral medication. If you start taking it several days before possible exposure to the virus, you may be able to significantly reduce your risk of infection.

To find out more about preventing HSV-1, talk with your doctor or someone with your local public health office.

There’s no cure for herpes gladiatorum, but certain treatments can reduce outbreaks on your skin and reduce your odds of infecting others. As well, you can take preventive measures to keep from getting infected yourself.

If you have HSV-1, you may go for long periods with no obvious symptoms. But you must remember that the virus will always be with you. By working with your doctor and your significant other, as well as your coaches and teammates if you’re an athlete at risk of spreading the virus, you may be able to manage your condition successfully and safely for a long time.