Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is referred to as type 1 (HSV1) or type 2 (HSV2). It causes painful blisters to appear on the genitals and the surrounding areas. Genital herpes can be passed to others through sexual contact.
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people in the US of people between the ages of 16 and 49 have HSV2. Recent studies have indicated that up to 70 percent of people between those ages may have the virus. That study is still under question, so cannot yet be taken as fact.
HSV1 is acquired orally and the most common symptom is cold sores.
HSV2 is acquired through sexual contact and affects mainly the genital area.
What is Herpes?
The herpes simplex is a virus and works as such. It causes ulcers or sores such as cold sores or genital blisters. It is an effective virus, but one the human immune system is equipped to fight. Of those people infected with the virus, the majority of them are asymptomatic. This is one of the reasons medical studies are conflicted on the true infection rate in America.
It is passed through sexual contact, so is regarded as a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD). This is because the moist skin that lines the mouth, genitals and anus is the most susceptible to infection.
The virus can also enter the body through a cut or abrasion on the skin. If the wound comes into contact with a cold sore for example, the virus can pass into the body. This is rare, but does happen occasionally.
Herpes Signs and Symptoms
If symptoms do occur in the infected, they appear between 2 and 8 days after contracting the virus. The symptoms will generally last up to a month, then disappear.
- Itching or tingling sensation in the genital or anal area
- Small fluid-filled blisters that burst leaving small sores
- Flu-like symptoms, including swollen glands or fever
- Pain when passing urine over the open sores (especially in women)
Any of these symptoms can be caused by a number of things, which is why the virus is difficult to identify. The initial symptoms will disappear, only to reappear at random times. Not everyone will display the initial outbreak, let alone further ones.
As each outbreak appears, the symptoms become less and less. This is because the immune system fights the virus effectively and suppresses it when it arises. Anyone, including those who have been previously asymptomatic, may display symptoms when under stress or ill with something else. The weakness of the immune system as it fights something else can allow the virus to surface again.
There is no “cure” for the herpes simplex virus. Once the virus has been contracted, it stays within the body for life. However, once the immune system has dealt with it, the effects and symptoms can often never appear again. The virus will still be present, and can be passed on, but symptoms do not always follow.
Even though there is no cure for herpes, the symptoms and the discomfort can be treated in a number of ways.
- Painkillers such as paracetamol may help to ease pain
- Anesthetic ointment that you can buy at pharmacies can relieve itching or pain
- An ice pack placed over any sores for 5-10 minutes can be soothing
- Drinking lots of water can help dilute urine, making it easier to pass
- Avoiding scented soaps and shower gel is a good idea too, as these may irritate the sores
- Antiviral medication may be prescribed in persistent cases
Antiviral medication doesn’t treat the virus itself but prevents it from replicating itself. The strength of a virus comes from how quickly the cells reproduce and spread around the body. Antiviral medication interrupts this reproduction allowing the immune system to fight the virus.
This doesn’t kill off the virus, but makes any outbreaks easier to handle and of a shorter duration.This medication isn’t always necessary, and is often only prescribed in the very worst cases.
As already mentioned, as the virus lives in the body, the immune system becomes more adept at fighting it. Usually this results in it being completely suppressed and living dormant in the nerve fibers. If symptoms do occur, they generally lose their voraciousness each time they occur as the virus gets weaker and the immune system gets stronger.
Complications of Herpes
In the vast majority of cases, herpes is more an annoyance than a health threat. However, in a small minority of people, the sores can become infected and lead to other diseases or infections.
Herpes and Pregnancy
Having herpes doesn’t impact fertility. However, if the virus is contracted in the first three months of pregnancy there is a chance of miscarriage. Contracting the virus while pregnant also has a heightened risk of passing it to the baby. Seek medical advice in either of these situations.
It is possible to pass herpes on to the unborn child, the chances are currently 4 in 10. Those who suffer a serious outbreak around delivery time will be recommended for a Caesarian section so as to avoid passing the infection to the baby. Herpes in a child can become severe, so prevention is better than the cure.
It’s difficult to protect yourself, or a partner against something if you don’t know you have it. That’s why infection rates are so high. If symptoms do surface, it’s best to avoid contact with others until they have passed.
- Kissing or performing oral sex when with cold sores around the mouth
- Having oral sex when oral or genital sores are present
- Having any genital or anal contact, even using a condom with genital sores
- Using saliva to moisten contact lenses with sores around the mouth
A good personal hygiene regimen helps prevent infection. Washing hands before and after touching affected areas is vital, especially if there are children around.
Just because someone has herpes, doesn’t mean that sex is over. Checking with a physician or sexual health clinic can advise further.