The complicated thing about herpes is that it does not have consistent constitutional symptoms at all times. The symptoms vary with the type of strain a person is affected with, their immune health, and whether or not they are taking medication for their illness.
The most common symptom of herpes is the appearance of blisters. These blisters usually appear on the oral or the genital region depending on what type of person infects a person. These blisters can progress to form open sores and scabs before resolving on their own. An infected individual may also have symptoms that mimic a common cold, including headaches, body aches, nasal congestion, and lethargy. A person infected with herpes may show symptoms at any stage of their life.
However, infected individuals don't need to be symptomatic at all. Many people with herpes never show any symptoms, which leads to non-diagnosis and increased risk of transmission to the general public. A complete understanding of the symptoms can better diagnose and manage herpes.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF HERPES?
As explained above, herpes has a very peculiar set of symptoms. The symptoms themselves are not unconventional. However, their pattern of appearance, and disappearance, can be very deceiving. Some people may never show the constitutional symptoms of herpes at all.
To understand the pattern of this disease, it is important to remember the symptoms of herpes. The primary symptom of herpes is the appearance of blisters in the oral or genital region. Oral blisters appear when a person is infected with HSV-1. However, HSV-1 can also cause genital ulcers or blisters if a person receives HSV-1 through oral sex from an infected individual.
Genital ulcers are generally associated with HSV-2. However, a person can get oral blisters if involved in oral sex with an individual infected with HSV-2. Blisters in genital herpes can appear on the penis, vagina, vulva, buttocks, and thighs.
Blisters in herpes usually appear within a week of infection. However, there is no set pattern, and these blisters can appear at any time – or never. Once the blisters appear, they form clusters of raised, red nodules on the skin, resembling a simple rash. These blisters are filled with pus, usually painful, and spread rapidly.
Generally, these blisters resolve on their own within 2-3 weeks. However, resolution may take longer or shorter than a week for every individual. During the resolution phase, the blisters turn into open sores, which are highly infectious and can infect other people through contact. Open sores then turn into scabs that ultimately resolve completely before appearing once again when triggered.
Other symptoms of herpes resemble that of the common cold and include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
WHAT TRIGGERS A HERPES OUTBREAK?
When the constitutional symptoms of herpes appear, it is called a herpes outbreak or a herpetic outbreak. Herpes outbreaks appear and disappear randomly. Generally, symptoms appear within a week or ten days after infection. These symptoms last for a couple of weeks before resolving. The subsequent outbreaks can appear at any time, depending on several different factors.
Herpes outbreaks occur because the virus cannot be completely eliminated from the body. After the first onset of symptoms, the herpes simplex virus hides in the ganglion and other cells of the body. The virus can remain dormant for weeks, months, or even years before emerging again to cause symptoms.
Herpetic outbreaks frequently occur during the first year of infection. However, their frequency reduces as the infection progresses beyond a year. It is thought that the immune system of an infected individual "learns" to contain the virus somewhat as time passes by. According to the American Sexual Health Association, HSV-2 infection may exhibit 4-5 outbreaks per year. In contrast, those with HSV-1 infection may experience fewer outbreaks, up to once or twice per year.
One of the most important factors that influence the occurrence of herpetic outbreaks is HSV treatment. While there is no cure for herpes, treatment with anti-viral medication has proved effective in reducing both the severity and the frequency of herpetic outbreaks. Taking regular medication also decreases the risk of transmission to other people.
Immunity is also a major factor determining how many outbreaks a person with herpes may experience in a year. While HSV can also reduce immunity, other factors such as sexually transmitted diseases can predispose a person to experience frequent and severe herpetic outbreaks.
Stress, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition while having herpes can significantly increase the risk of frequent and severe herpetic outbreaks. Alcohol and drug abuse also contribute to decreased immunity and, therefore, directly increase the chances of experiencing herpetic outbreaks.
Medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and other chronic illnesses can also increase the adverse effects of herpes. Studies show that people with controlled comorbid conditions still experience frequent herpes outbreaks but fewer than those not taking treatment for their medical conditions.
Drug interactions can also increase a person's chances of experiencing herpes symptoms. Drugs taken for other medical conditions may interfere with the metabolism of the anti-viral drugs taken for herpes and lower their concentration in body tissues. This lowered concertation of anti-herpes drugs may provide a chance for the virus to re-activate itself.
Similarly, chemotherapy and radiation for cancer can lower the immune health of an individual and predispose them to frequent outbreaks of herpes.
HOW TO STOP A CURRENT HERPES OUTBREAK?
Symptomatic treatment works best when trying to cure an ongoing herpes outbreak.
If you have a fever, taking acetaminophen (paracetamol) is helpful. You can also use cold compresses to lower the fever. If the fever does not resolve with medication or on its own within 2-3 days, you should give your doctor a call. Taking ibuprofen helps with body aches. You can also take warm baths to lower body aches.
Cold compresses also help massively with the itching associated with blisters. You can apply cold compresses as many times during the day as the need arises. People with genital sores may find it helpful to pee directly in a tub of cold water to relieve the burning sensation while peeing.
Washing sores gently with soap and water also speeds up the healing process. It is important not to cover the sores completely with a bandage. Keeping herpes sores open helps heal them quicker. Also, remember to not pick at herpes sores because that might delay healing.
Only use topical ointments which your health care provider prescribes.
HOW TO PREVENT HERPES OUTBREAKS?
While it may not be possible to eliminate herpes from an infected person’s body, it is possible to lower the frequency and the severity of symptoms associated with this infection.
The best possible management of symptoms in herpes comes through the medical management of the disease. Anti-viral drugs used in herpes can lower the concentration of the virus in the body. While these drugs may not be able to eliminate the dormant virus completely, they lower the viral load just enough so that a person living with herpes may get a chance to live a quality life.
Anti-viral drugs also lower the risk of transmitting the virus to other people. People who take anti-viral medication regularly can enjoy a healthy sex life; granted, they use condoms, get tested regularly, and abstain from sex during a herpes outbreak.
Lowering stress is also a functional way of reducing the outbreaks associated with herpes. Employing effective stress-management techniques, getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, and practicing meditation can help lower stress levels and, consequently, the frequency with which the symptoms of herpes appear.
Smoking cessation can also have beneficial effects since smoking leads to an increased level of cortisone, the stress hormone, in the body.
If you have comorbid conditions, it is best to get medical treatment for them. Having controlled comorbid conditions reduces the appearance of herpes outbreaks.