Herpes: The Facts (and What to Do About It)

Herpes is an infection that is sexually transmitted and can affect the genitals and the cervix in addition to the skin on other areas of the body. The herpes simplex virus, to use its scientific name, comes in two different types:

  • Herpes Type 1 (HSV-1)
  • Herpes Type 2 (HSV-2)

Herpes is a long-term condition but many people who carry the virus may never even experience any symptoms, while others can struggle with recurring genital herpes. After a person is infected the first time, the recurrences often happen with increasing frequency but the remission time will gradually grow longer, with each subsequent occurrence gradually diminishing in severity.

How herpes is spread

Herpes is highly contagious and is easily passed between two people by direct, close physical contact, most commonly through anal, oral or vaginal sex. HSV generally remains dormant in someone who is infected with the virus. HSV-2 is the type of herpes that generally causes instances of genital herpes, which is primarily spread via sexual contact.

Genital herpes can be caused by oral/genital contact with HSV-1, which is the most common cause of oral herpes. HSV that is present on the skin of someone who has the infection can easily pass it to someone else via the moist skin lining the anus, genitals and mouth. Other areas of human skin, and even the eyes, can also pass on the virus.

It is not possible for human beings to become infected by touching objects that have been used by someone with the infection such as towels, working surfaces or washbasins. HSV leaves human skin just prior to the appearance of a blister, and is most likely to be transmitted to others from just before it appears until after it has been fully healed. It is less likely, but still possible, for the virus to be passed to another person even when there is no indication of an outbreak.

Herpes facts

People who have herpes can still have sex, but should avoid any form of sexual contact if they are showing symptoms. Condoms can help to prevent the virus spreading further. The risk of being infected with herpes is significantly increased if you receive oral sex from a person with cold sores situated around their mouth. It is not possible to be infected with genital herpes from toilet seats, and the virus cannot cause sterility.

Stress can bring about another recurrence of symptoms and those with the virus are also more susceptible to the HIV virus. It is important to remember that genital herpes is able to spread between different parts of the body. Anyone who has, or fears they may have been infected, should see their GP or consult with a specialist sexual healthcare provider online for advice on testing.

Symptoms

Symptoms of the herpes virus generally manifest as sores on the mouth and blisters on the genital area. The great majority of people may suffer no apparent symptoms for a long time after receiving the infection, sometimes even a number of years. Those who do experience symptoms following infection generally notice them between four to seven days after.

Symptoms that manifest soon after infection are known as primary infection symptoms and are often more serious than later recurrences. Such symptoms can last as long as twenty days and include:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Fever (a temperature)
  • Mouth cold sores
  • Ulceration and blisters on the cervix
  • Pain caused by urination
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Painful red blisters on buttocks, thighs, the rectum and external genital areas that burst and result in ulcers

In the great majority of instances ulcers heal without any lasting scars being suffered by the patient. Recurrent infection symptoms generally last for a shorter period of time and are not as severe, as immunity to the herpes virus has been built up by the body. These symptoms are similar to those above but rarely last longer than ten days. Those infected with HSV-1 will have less severe symptoms and fewer recurrences than those with the HSV-2 infection.

Treatments

There is no medicinal cure, but treatments for the infection include over-the-counter painkillers, bathing in slightly salty water, ice packs and Vaseline. Pain during urination can be alleviated with the use of lotion and cream for the urethra. Herpes symptoms can also be controlled by the use of medications such as Aciclovir but this needs to be prescribed.