What is herpes?
Herpes is an infection caused by a group of viruses known as herpesviruses. These viruses can cause disease in humans and animals.
The total number of known herpesviruses is 100, but only about eight can infect human beings. Out of those eight, the herpes simplex virus is the most common cause of herpes infections in humans.
There are two types of herpes simplex virus infections: type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2).
HSV-1 is associated with oral herpes, which occurs on the lips and mouth. You may notice cold sores or blisters around your mouth or on your lips if you have HSV-1 infection.
HSV-2 is associated with genital herpes, which can cause serious health complications. Noticeable symptoms include blisters, red bumps, itching, and pain in the genital area.
HSV infections are usually asymptomatic. This means that they do not cause any symptoms, which is why you may not know you have HSV unless you go for a checkup.
How do people get herpes?
Herpes is transmitted through human-to-human contact, usually through kissing or sex. As long as there is skin contact, a person with herpes can infect another person, even when they are not exhibiting any symptoms.
HSV-1 is commonly transmitted through kissing or oral sex, while HSV-2 is usually transmitted through anal or vaginal intercourse. Although it happens extremely rarely, a pregnant woman with an HSV infection can also transmit it to her baby during delivery.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are notorious for lying dormant in nerve cells, where they can remain inactive for some time.
When the virus becomes active, it replicates and becomes transmittable through saliva and other body secretions. This process is called viral shedding. During this period, you may or may not experience symptoms.
Once a person becomes infected with the herpes simplex virus, the virus never leaves the body. As a result, the HSV infection may recur from time to time.
Can you spread herpes without an outbreak?
Yes. It is possible for a person to spread herpes without an outbreak. As long as the person has a herpes infection, they can spread it even if an outbreak has never occurred.
Fortunately, many people who have a herpes infection never have an outbreak. If an outbreak does occur, visible symptoms such as sores and blisters will show up in the affected area. These symptoms may become visible about two and a half weeks after exposure.
When a person has an initial outbreak, they may experience symptoms such as painful urination (for genital herpes) and muscle and joint pain.
Depending on the type of herpes infection you have and its severity, your doctor may recommend a particular antiviral treatment.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes. But with antiviral treatment, you can treat the symptoms associated with the infection. You can also reduce the number of outbreaks and speed up the healing process with antiviral therapy.
Oral herpes is treated with a combination of antiviral drugs. Your doctor may prescribe topical and/or oral antiviral medication. Topical antiviral medication is prescribed when you have sores and blisters in the affected area.
It may take two weeks for the sores to clear up with treatment or even longer depending on the severity of the infection.
Genital herpes is also treated with a combination of antiviral drugs. Your doctor may prescribe topical antiviral medications if you have sores or blisters in the genital area.
Your doctor may also prescribe episodic or suppressive therapy if you have genital herpes.
Episodic therapy involves taking antiviral medication the moment you notice the first signs of an outbreak. You may need to take the medication for a couple of days to stop the outbreak from occurring fully. The medication may also help speed up healing of any visible symptoms.
Suppressive therapy involves taking antiviral medication every day to prevent the infection from recurring. This therapy works well for people who experience frequent outbreaks. Suppressive therapy also reduces the risk of HSV transmission.
Since this treatment approach involves taking antiviral drugs every day, talk to your doctor to see if or when you should stop taking the medication.
Since herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact, here are some preventive measures that can help reduce the risk of getting or spreading HSV.
- If you have HSV, avoid any sexual contact with an uninfected person if you have cold sores or blisters on the mouth or the genital area.
- Use condoms. If you share sex toys, make sure to disinfect them before you use them.
- If you have frequent outbreaks, use suppressive therapy to reduce the number of outbreaks as well as the risk of transmission.
- Talk to your partner about sexually transmitted infections and go for a checkup together. If one of you is diagnosed with HSV, the healthcare provider can recommend measures to help prevent or reduce the risk of transmission.
- If you are pregnant and you know you have an HSV infection, your doctor may suggest measures that can help prevent transmission to your baby during delivery.
In summary, the herpes simplex virus is a contagious and non-curable infection. Treatment is done with antiviral therapy, which also helps prevent the infection from recurring. To protect yourself against getting the infection, use condoms and avoid skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
Also, talk to your partner about sexually transmitted infections and be honest with them if you have an HSV infection. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns regarding HSV treatment or transmission.