What Is Herpes?

Herpes is a common viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus, and typically attacks the mouth, genitals, and anal region. People can be carriers without ever experiencing symptoms. But there are ways to reduce symptoms. Read on to learn more.

7 minute read

Last Updated July 13, 2020

Herpes: Symptoms, Variations, and Treatments

Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two main types of HSV, and the infections can occur in various parts of the body. 

Most commonly, the virus attacks mucosal surfaces, genitals, the anal region, and the skin. Herpes is a long term condition, but in many cases, people carry the virus without realizing it, as they never show symptoms. 

Herpes Symptoms

Many people do not notice symptoms for months or years after contracting the virus. If you do have symptoms within the initial period, they will show within 4 days of exposure. 

Many people infected with HSV have recurring herpes. These recurrences are more frequent at first, but less frequent as time passes. Common symptoms of primary infections include:

♦ Pain and itching
♦ Pain when urinating
♦ Blisters on external genitalia
♦ Fever
Cold sores around the mouth
♦ Tender and enlarged lymph nodes

The symptoms for recurrent herpes are less severe, do not last as long, and will include:

♦ Cold sores around the mouth
♦ Red blisters
♦ Burning and tingling around the genitals before blisters appear

Herpes can also spread to the eye, causing an infection known as keratitis. This produces symptoms that include eye pain, a gritty feeling in the eye, and discharge.

Herpes Causes

When the herpes virus is present on the skin of an infected person, it is easy to pass it along, especially through moist skin such as the mouth, genitals, and anus. You cannot get infected by touching an object that has been touched by an infected person. 

HSV-2 is mostly spread through direct contact with an open sore, although it can be spread from asymptomatic people as well. It is also possible to get genital herpes from HSV-1 through oral sex.

There are also additional factors known to trigger outbreaks or make symptoms worse. 

♦ Stress (both physical and emotional) can trigger outbreaks.

♦ A weakened immune system as a result of an underlying condition or even the common cold allows the virus to activate.

♦ Hormone changes can trigger outbreaks. This is more common among women, as they experience fluctuations during menstruation cycles, pregnancy, and menopause.

♦ Excessive exposure to sunlight or sunbeds can trigger outbreaks, so if you have the virus, it is best to always wear sunscreen to minimize this.

♦ Herpes Diagnosis

Typically, a physical exam will lead to a diagnosis of herpes. Your doctor will also check for sores and ask you to verify your symptoms. 

HSV testing is also available, which involves taking a swab of fluid from a sore to confirm a diagnosis. This can only be done if you have visible sores on your body. Blood tests for HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies are also performed to confirm diagnoses when there are no sores present. 

What Are the Variations of Herpes?

♦ HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes and is responsible for cold sores and fever blisters on the mouth and face. HSV-1 can be contracted through direct contacts, such as sharing utensils, kissing, and sharing lip balm. 

♦ HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes and is responsible for genital herpes outbreaks. It is contracted through sexual contact. Unlike HSV-1 where you can contract the virus from an asymptomatic person, HSV-2 is spread through contact with open herpes sore.  
Treatment for Herpes

There is no cure for the virus, but treatment focuses on eliminating sores and reducing outbreaks. Sores can go away without treatment, but medications are beneficial for preventing the spread of the disease to others.

Medications lower the intensity of the outbreaks and reduce the frequency, so chances of passing the virus along are also reduced. Antiviral medications for herpes are either ingested orally or administered through injection. 

Herpes Diet

There is not a specific diet that can treat herpes or cure it. Herpes is not always active, so it is possible to reduce the severity of breakouts by watching your diet. 

Excessive amounts of the amino acid arginine have been found to trigger outbreaks, so foods high in this such as chocolate or almonds should be avoided. 

Lysine is a beneficial amino acid found in dairy products, meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables, and it prevents the herpes virus from multiplying, so taking it can reduce breakout frequency. 

Natural Treatments for Herpes

Along with medications, there are home remedies you can try to reduce outbreak severity as well as help with uncomfortable symptoms. 

♦ Painkillers can ease any pain
♦ Bathing in lightly salted water
♦ Applying petroleum jelly to the infected area
♦ Washing hands thoroughly after touching the infected area 
♦ Refraining from sexual activity until symptoms are gone
♦ Avoid tight-fitting clothing around the infected area
♦ Apply ice packs, but not directly to the skin. Always wrap it in a towel first. 

Herpes Statistics

♦ More than 50 percent of people in the United States have HSV-1, and almost 16 percent have HSV-2.
♦ Globally, more than 3.7 billion people are infected with HSV-1.
♦ Almost 90 percent of those infected with herpes are asymptomatic, so they unaware they have the infection.
♦ The rate of genital herpes as caused by the HSV-1 virus is increasing each year.

Herpes and Children

It is not uncommon for children to contract HSV-1 through early contact with an infected adult, and they will then carry the virus for life. Infected children will develop cold sores and blisters and will also experience fever, swollen glands and lymph nodes, irritability, and drooling. 

HSV-1 is especially dangerous in younger children because if it spreads to the eye, a dangerous condition known as HSV keratitis develops. Without treatment, this can cause blindness, so it is important to monitor young children closely, and seek treatment right away if they have HSV-1.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Once you have HSV, you will have it for life, even if you never see any symptoms. In the case of both genital herpes and oral herpes, the presence of an open sore will pass the virus along through direct contact. 

HSV-1, however, can be passed without a sore being visible. A dormant virus can still trigger an outbreak, so you should always be prepared to treat the infection. As your body starts creating antibodies, the intensity will be less severe with time, and there are rarely any serious complications. 

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