Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that is a growing problem in the United States. Nearly 195 million people in the US have either oral or genital herpes.
The Herpes Simplex Virus causes herpes. The types of HSV are HSV 1 and HSV 2. HSV 1 usually causes oral herpes, while HSV 2 infection usually results in genital herpes. You can acquire a herpes infection from an infected individual through sexual contact, but the HSV virus has other modes of transmission as well. While there is no cure for herpes, effective medication and risk prevention can help individuals live a long and healthy life.
Two separate viruses usually cause oral and genital herpes, but you can acquire either one of them depending on the nature and mode of your exposure. Let's look at how the herpes virus is spread, how it infects an individual, and what to do about it.
HOW IS HERPES SPREAD?
As mentioned before, herpes is a contagious sexually transmitted disease. There are two types of viruses that cause herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV 1 is usually linked with oral herpes, where painful blisters appear in and around a person's mouth. HSV-2 is most commonly associated with genital herpes, where painful blisters appear in, on, and around a person's sexual organs.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 47% of Americans in the reproductive age group (14-49) are infected with HSV-1, and almost 11% of Americans are infected with the genital variety of herpes: the HSV-2. WHO also estimates that 60% of the world's population is infected with HSV.
The most common way to transmit the herpes virus is through sexual contact. Like all sexually transmitted diseases, a herpes infection can be acquired through unprotected, high-risk sexual intercourse with people who have this infection. All types of unprotected sexual contact carry the risk of infection with herpes, including oral, vaginal, and anal sex.
While sexual contact is the most common mode of transmission for this disease, it can also be spread through other means. For example, you can acquire herpes by kissing someone with oral herpes. You can acquire genital herpes if you receive oral sex from a person with oral herpes. This is probably why some people who have genital herpes show HSV-1 on serology despite its strong association with oral herpes.
You can also acquire both genital and oral herpes by coming into contact with the genital fluids of an infected person. You are at risk of contracting the virus if you come into contact with:
- An infected person’s genital fluids
- Open sores on an infected person’s body
- The saliva of an infected person
- The oral skin of a person with oral herpes
- The genital skin of a person with genital herpes
It is worthwhile to know that you can also acquire herpes from an infected person who has no apparent symptoms of the disease. It is essential to understand that the symptoms of herpes infection appear and disappear rather frequently. So you can acquire the disease from someone who has never had a herpes outbreak (appearance of herpes blisters and other symptoms) in their life.
While you may be at risk of acquiring the virus if you come into contact with the saliva, open sores, or genital fluids of an infected person, know that just touching a person infected with herpes will not put you at risk of getting infected with the virus. You can also NOT acquire the virus through community swimming pools, public toilet seats, using bedsheets, and other such common items. However, there is a risk of infection if any of these items are contaminated with an infected person’s blood, semen, or saliva.
Once the herpes virus is introduced, the primary infection process of the virus starts at the site of contact. The virus penetrates through breaks in the epithelial lining, and the viral envelope comes into contact with cellular membranes.
Once the virus enters a host cell, the HSV DNA is then incorporated into the host cell's DNA, where it takes over the control of the protein manufacturing ability of the cell. The virus then uses the host cell's mechanisms to survive and replicate. Once replicated enough times, the virus then spreads to other sites in the body. The most common manifestations of herpes infection are blisters on the skin and in the mucous membranes of an infected person.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF A HERPES INFECTION?
Herpes, whether genital or oral, is a relatively mild disease, and the symptoms aren't always apparent. This is one of the reasons why people with herpes don't usually know that they are infected and, therefore, do not seek treatment for their condition.
The characteristic pattern of a symptomatic disease with herpes infection is a blister outbreak, also known as herpes or herpetic outbreak. These blisters appear at the primary site of infection, which means that they appear on the genitals in case of genital herpes and on and around the mouth in case of oral herpes.
These blisters are painful, filled with pus, and cause a lot of discomfort. Oral ulcers make it hard for people to chew, kiss, drink, and perform normal daily activities. Genital ulcers can result in painful, burning micturition and cause many discomforts as they appear in a sensitive area. Genital ulcers can appear anywhere in the genital region, including the penis, vagina, scrotum, vulva, anus, thighs, and buttocks.
The herpes blisters are not always present and can appear for a few days before disappearing on their own and reappearing weeks later. Sometimes, people with herpes never have a herpetic outbreak. Instead, they can have redness and itchiness of the skin resembling a rash.
Other symptoms of herpes may include:
- Body aches
- Flu-like symptoms
- Swollen glands
It is important to note that touching herpes blisters can cause the virus to spread to other parts of the body, like your eyes. Therefore, make sure not to touch herpes blisters if you are currently experiencing an outbreak. Wash your hands promptly if you come into contact with herpetic blisters.
HOW IS A HERPES INFECTION DIAGNOSED?
Since many people with herpes do not have any symptoms, it is not always apparent whether they should get tested for it or not. It is important to get tested for herpes if you have any ongoing symptoms, for example, genital or oral ulcers. You should also get tested regularly if your partner has herpes or any other sexually transmitted disease.
Your doctor may diagnose you directly by looking at your blisters or sores. They can also send samples from your blisters or sores for histological examination to confirm the diagnosis. However, if you don't have an outbreak at the time of testing, your doctor may order a blood test. The blood test for herpes detects HSV antibodies produced in response to an ongoing HSV infection.
HOW IS HERPES TREATED?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes. However, there is effective treatment available that can reduce both the disease symptoms and the risk of transmission to other people. Anti-HSV medication includes anti-viral drugs that are taken daily to reduce the symptoms of HSV infection.
If prompt and effective treatment is not initiated, the symptomatic pattern of a person may likely get worse over time. Moreover, lack of treatment might also increase the risk of transmission to other people.
Prevention remains the best cure for herpes and, therefore, all preventive measures should be taken to minimize the risk of acquiring HSV as much as possible. Preventative measures include practicing safe sexual intercourse using a condom. Having too many sexual partners can also increase your risk of contracting the virus. If your partner has herpes, ensure that they take their anti-HSV medication daily. Also, make sure not to have sexual intercourse with your partner if they have an outbreak at the time.