Herpes Simplex

What is herpes simplex?

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The herpes simplex virus is an infection that causes oral and genital herpes. This is an extremely common condition. According to the World Health Organization, around 67% of people over age 50 have oral or genital herpes. This condition is primarily transmitted through sexual contact, but there are other common transmission methods.

If you are experiencing herpes simplex symptoms, scheduling an appointment with a medical professional can help. The herpes virus can be asymptomatic, which means visiting a doctor when experiencing active sores is the easiest way to receive a diagnosis. While certain over-the-counter medications can treat herpes symptoms, a doctor can prescribe more efficient treatment. Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist or primary care doctor today.

What causes herpes?

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Herpes is caused by a viral infection. The herpes simplex virus is contagious. It is often transmitted through direct contact with sores. For this reason, sexual contact is the most common form of viral transmission. Transmission can occur from:

  • Kissing
  • Penetrative sex
  • Oral sex

That said, herpes can transmit from other forms of skin-to-skin contact. For example, wrestling, boxing, and certain martial arts can result in herpes transmission. There is also a low chance that sharing eating utensils, cosmetic products, and drinking vessels can cause infection. To that end, children can contract the virus if kissed on the face by an adult with a cold sore.

Keep in mind that the virus has “shedding” periods, which only occur for a short amount of time. These shedding periods are the primary time where it is possible to transmit or contract the virus. But, for this reason, it is possible to transmit the virus even if a person does not have visible symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control, shedding happens for anywhere between 10 and 20% of the time.

What are the two types of herpes?

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There are two primary types of the herpes simplex virus. They are each associated with different symptoms.

  • HSV-1: HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes. These sores and blisters appear on the face and around the mouth.
  • HSV-2: HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes. These sores and blisters appear around or on the anus, genitals, and inner thighs.

While each type of herpes virus is closely associated with a specific range of symptoms, they are not mutually exclusive. In other words, somebody with HSV-1 may have genital herpes rather than oral sores.

What are symptoms of herpes simplex?

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Herpes simplex cases can be symptomatic and asymptomatic. In asymptomatic cases, the individual carries the virus, and can experience viral shedding, but does not show symptoms. In symptomatic cases, the person develops visible symptoms.

Symptoms vary by person, but they also vary by infection. For example, the symptoms a person experiences upon initial infection are different from what they may experience with a recurring episode. In general, the symptoms that appear upon primary infection include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Decreased appetite
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Blisters and sores

By contrast, recurrent herpes simplex symptoms are more visual in nature. Blisters and sores are the primary symptom. These sores can tingle, burn, and itch.

There are also differences in symptoms depending on herpes location. For example, people with genital herpes may experience a burning sensation while urinating. A person with oral herpes may experience pain while consuming bitter or spicy foods.

Should you see a doctor for herpes simplex?

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Yes: If you believe you have the herpes simplex virus, you should visit a doctor. Diagnosis is easiest when sores are visible. Additionally, a doctor may be able to prescribe a more aggressive treatment option to reduce symptoms quickly.

People with female bodies who have genital herpes should visit a doctor as soon as possible. Researchers have discovered a link between herpes simplex virus and cervical cancer. Early herpes diagnosis can lead to more proactive cervical cancer screenings.

Keep in mind that general sexually transmitted infection screenings don’t typically test for the herpes simplex virus. If you are visiting a clinician for an STI test, be sure to specify that you would also like to be tested for herpes.

How is herpes diagnosed?

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Receiving a herpes diagnosis is a relatively simple process. In most cases, your physician will be able to make a diagnosis with a visual inspection. During this process, they will likely ask about any associated fevers, body aches, and burning sensations, depending on the herpes’ location. In some cases, a physician may swab fluid from an active sore to confirm diagnosis.

If you believe you have herpes but do not have active sores, a doctor may request a blood test. Testing for herpes antibodies is a viable option, but accurate detection is not possible until 12 weeks after infection transmission. There are also a range of at-home antibody testing kits available at pharmacies. However, these kits are known for reporting false negatives. If you have the ability, seeing a doctor is always the best option.

What are treatment options for herpes simplex?

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There is no cure for herpes. However, there are dozens of treatment options available to eliminate and mitigate symptoms.

Most herpes outbreaks will clear on their own. However, people with frequent or intense outbreaks may receive antiviral medications from their doctor. This can include famciclovir, acyclovir, and/or valacyclovir. These medications typically come in the form of topical creams or oral pills. Taking an antiviral medication can also reduce shedding, which will limit opportunity for the virus to spread.

If you are experiencing a mild but recurring herpes outbreak, you may consider one of the many available home treatments. Home treatments are designed to alleviate pain and discomfort. Common home treatments include:

  • Aloe vera
  • Warm compress
  • Ice pack
  • Tea tree oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Baking soda paste

There are also a number of available over-the-counter herpes treatment products. Hydrocortisone cream, lidocaine, and Tylenol can all help mitigate symptoms.

Are there possible complications from herpes simplex?

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Some people may develop herpes keratitis. This is a herpes infection in the eyes. Herpes keratitis can cause vision impairment, light sensitivity, ocular discharge, and eye pain.

While herpes simplex symptoms cycle through remission and recurrence, the virus lives in the body permanently. As a result, many people experience herpes symptom triggers when living everyday life. Common triggers include menstruation, sunburn, stress, and other viral infections. While the herpes simplex virus is not often dangerous, it requires consistent monitoring for symptoms and triggers. Herpes can be a more serious condition for people with compromised immune systems, those with cancer, people with HIV diagnoses, and newborns.

How to prevent the spread of the herpes simplex virus?

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It is possible to live a normal, healthy life with herpes simplex. There are a number of strategies people can take to reduce the virus’s effect on their life. Preventing transmission is among the most important. If you have a confirmed or suspected diagnosis, here are some tactics to prevent passing the virus to a partner:

  • Use latex condoms during intercourse
  • Use dental dams during oral sex
  • Avoid sexual activity during an outbreak
  • Avoid sharing toothbrushes and razors
  • Wash hands thoroughly after touching sores
  • Avoid kissing during an outbreak

On average, around 1 in 10 people with herpes will pass the virus to another person. If you have the virus, do what you can to stop the spread.

What is the outlook for people with herpes simplex?

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People with herpes simplex infections typically live normal, healthy lives. While blisters and outbreaks can cause discomfort, symptoms are often temporary. Receiving a diagnosis and working with a doctor on a treatment plan can also improve life with the herpes virus.

If you have a suspected or confirmed herpes diagnosis, it is important to disclose that information to sexual partners. This can help foster a sense of trust and prevent additional transmission. While this conversation can be a difficult one, it is necessary to allow the partner to fully consent to sexual activity. There are various resources available to help facilitate this discussion.

If you believe you have the herpes virus, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Confirming a diagnosis is the first step toward a happy and healthy lifestyle.