Herpes simplex is a common viral infection. If you’ve ever had a cold sore or fever blister, you picked up the herpes simplex virus. Most cold sores are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Other names for cold sores caused by HSV-1 are:
A closely related herpes simplex virus, HSV-2, causes most cases of genital herpes. But either HSV-1 or HSV-2 can cause a herpes sore on the face or genitals.
Image used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.
Many people who get the virus that causes herpes never see or feel anything. If signs (what you see) or symptoms (what you feel) occur, a person may experience:
Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.
Most people get HSV-1 (herpes simplex type 1) as an infant or child. This virus can be spread by skin-to-skin contact with an adult who carries the virus. An adult does not have to have sores to spread the virus.
A person usually gets HSV-2 (herpes simplex type 2) through sexual contact. About 20% of sexually active adults in the United States carry HSV-2. Some people are more likely to get HSV-2. These people:
Herpes simplex viruses spread from person to person through close contact. You can get a herpes simplex virus from touching a herpes sore. Most people, however, get herpes simplex from an infected person who does not have sores. Doctors call this “asymptomatic viral shedding.”
How people get herpes around their mouthA person with HSV-1 (herpes simplex type 1) can pass it to someone else by:
How people get herpes on their genitalsYou can get genital herpes after coming into contact with HSV-1 or HSV-2. Most people get genital herpes from HSV-2, which they get during sex. If someone has a cold sore and performs oral sex, this can spread HSV-1 to the genitals — and cause herpes sores on the genitals.
Mothers can give the herpes virus to their baby during childbirth. If the baby is born during the mother's first episode of genital herpes, the baby can have serious problems.
What happens once you have HSV-1 or HSV-2?Once a person becomes infected with a herpes virus, the virus never leaves the body. After the first outbreak, the virus moves from the skin cells to nerve cells. The virus stays in the nerve cells forever. But it usually just stays there. In this stage, the virus is said to be dormant, or asleep. But it can become active again.
Some things that can trigger (wake up) the virus are:
During an outbreak, a dermatologist often can diagnose herpes simplex by looking at the sores. To confirm that a patient has herpes simplex, a dermatologist may take a swab from a sore and send this swab to a laboratory.
When sores are not present, other medical tests, such as blood tests, can find the herpes simplex virus.
There is no cure for herpes simplex. The good news is that sores often clear without treatment. Many people choose to treat herpes simplex because treatment can relieve symptoms and shorten an outbreak.
Most people are treated with an antiviral medicine. An antiviral cream or ointment can relieve the burning, itching, or tingling. An antiviral medicine that is oral (pills) or intravenous (shot) can shorten an outbreak of herpes.
Prescription antiviral medicines approved for the treatment of both types of herpes simplex include:
Taken daily, these medicines can lessen the severity and frequency of outbreaks. They also can help prevent infected people from spreading the virus.
The first (primary) outbreak of herpes simplex is often the worst. Not all first outbreaks are severe, though. Some are so mild that a person does not notice. When the first outbreak of genital herpes is mild and another outbreak happens years later, the person can mistake it for a first outbreak.
Some people have 1 outbreak. For others, the virus becomes active again. When they have another outbreak, it is called a recurrence. These tend to be more common during the first year of infection. Over time, the outbreaks tend to become less frequent and milder. This is because the body makes antibodies (defenses) to the virus.
Serious complications rarely occur in healthy people with herpes simplex. They occur most often in unborn babies, newborns, and people who have a long-term illness or weak immune system. If you have cancer or HIV/AIDS, or you had an organ transplant, seek medical help right away if you have signs or symptoms of a herpes infection.
There are things you can do at home to help manage herpes sores.
The following can help:
The following may reduce the risk of spreading the herpes simplex virus:
Oral herpes (herpes simplex type 1)If you have sores on your face:
If you have tingling, burning, itching, or tenderness where you had a herpes sore, keep that area of your body away from others.
You can prevent spreading the sores to other parts of your body by:
Genital herpes (herpes simplex type 2)When you have sores or symptoms do not have sex with uninfected partners.
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