What is herpes?
Herpes is a viral condition that gets its name from the type of virus causing it – herpes simplex. It's a chronic condition, which means it's in the system for a lifetime and cannot be cured. Herpes may go unnoticed for years, without the person realizing they are carrying the virus. This virus is human transmissible, which means it can easily be passed from person to person. The most common way is sexual – through oral, anal and vaginal sex. The virus will typically remain dormant for a long time before the first symptoms appear. Herpes simplex virus can be of either type - HSV-1 or HSV-2. HSV-1 is known as oral herpes, while HSV-2 is genital herpes. Around 60% of adult population in the United Stated alone carry HSV-1, and 20% carry HSV-2.
Herpes simplex virus: type one
HSV-1 is far more common than genital herpes. HSV-1 strain is likely to cause cold sores on the face. Before the appearance of the cold sore, the person may experience tingling and burning under the skin, with slight throbbing. Cold sores are also referred to as fever blisters. They represent small blisters usually showing up on the lips or anywhere around the mouth, sometimes on the chin, inside the nose or anywhere on the face. The sores caused by this type of virus can also appear on the genitals in case the outbreak was preceded by oral sex with a carrier of the HSV-1 in its active form. HSV-1 is easily spread through oral secretions.
Herpes simplex virus: type two
Herpes Simplex Type 2 is what we know as genital herpes. It's far less common, causing outbreaks of genital sores in the rectum and genital area. HSV 2 can spread thought skin contact and sexual contact, which makes this condition very difficult to prevent. It's nearly impossible to pick up the virus from getting in contact with objects that the infected person touched, because the virus does not live too long outside of the body. The initial symptoms of genital herpes may include itching and pain in the genital area. A few days pass, and small white blisters may appear, eventually becoming oozing or bleeding ulcers. The ulcers then form yellow crust and heal, with the scabs falling off after a few days.
How the herpes virus works
When the virus comes into contract with the lining for the mouth, vagina or anus, as well as compromised skin (broken, chapped etc), it travels straight to the nucleus of the cells and makes an attempt to reproduce itself. Even though the cells are affected, most people do not get any symptoms. This is why the virus can be dormant (not cause any symptoms in the patient using it). In some cases, the reproduction of the virus in the cells can destroy those cells. This is when the person may get physical symptoms of the virus, such as ulcers or blisters on the skin. When the blisters heal, the virus travels back via the nerves, staying deep in the body for months or even years. The virus reproduces itself through RNA inside the cell, which makes it impossible to cure it permanently.
What can trigger an outbreak of herpes?
It's still not known exactly what can trigger an outbreak of herpes in the person who carries the virus. However, there are theories that suggest it may be affected by stress, a surgery, some illness or even menstruation (in female patients). Weakened immune system can also become a factor, since it's easier for the virus to become active when the immune system is unable to fight it off properly. At the same time, some outbreaks can be caused by certain foods or medications, as well as occur for no obvious reason.
Genital herpes complications
While cold sores around your mouth caused by HSV-1 are unlikely to result in anything more serious, genital sores are may cause some complications unless you treat them properly. Firstly, the presence of genital sores increases the risk of contracting another sexually transmitted disease, AIDS being one of them. This has to do with your immune system being weakened by the virus, which is favorable for the development of other viruses in the body. Secondly, genital sores can increase the risk of rectal inflammation, which is most likely in same sex couples with one of the partners affected. Thirdly, there may be bladder problems, with inflammation developing around the urethra, closing it for up to a few days and rendering you incapable of urinating without the help of a catheter. Fourthly, genital sores that are left untreated are very dangerous for a newborn baby, resulting in severe complications. Lastly, the presence of the untreated virus of this kind can lead to an inflammation of the cerebrospinal fluid and membranes surrounding the spinal cord and the brain.
Genital herpes and pregnancy
Genital herpes can be passed from the mother of the child during delivery. The fact the mother has the virus does not mean the child will do to, however. Neonatal herpes may be caused by either type of the infection – HSV-1 or HSV-2, with genital herpes being more common. The infection is more likely if at the time of delivery the mother has an active herpes outbreak on the genitals. The baby's eyes, skin, mouth, internal organs and even the central nervous system may be affected. The central nervous system neonatal herpes can cause swelling in the brain and seizures, while the internal organ herpes can cause organ failure. The pregnant woman can either take a special medicine to prevent an outbreak and keep it under control, or opt for a C-section if there is little time to treat the outbreak.
How herpes is diagnosed
Usually because of the presence of physical symptoms in the patient (cold sores or blisters during genital herpes), no additional lab tests are required to determine the kind of herpes the patient has and what kind of treatment is needed. However, your doctor may decide, based on the actual physical examination, you also require additional tests. You may need a DNA test, a viral culture or a blood test. The DNA test involves taking a sample of you blood or even spinal fluid to establish the exact type of the virus you have. The blood test is required to establish the presence of the herpes virus antibodies, while the viral culture is required for the lab to examine a tissue sample and diagnose the virus better. Those tests are required in only a few cases if your doctor has some doubts. Most patients get their diagnosis and required treatment after physical examination alone.
How herpes is treated
Genital herpes is the kind that requires treatment because it's highly contagious. Treatments with antivirals like famciclovir, valacyclovir and acyclovir can reduce the frequency of herpes outbreaks, reduce the risk of passing the infection to the sexual partner or another person, lessen the severity of the symptoms displayed by the patient and help the sores and ulcers heal sooner, at the same time relieving pain and burning. The recommendations of your doctor may be different depending on your individual case. You may need to be taking your drug regularly or only when you get the symptoms and an outbreak occurs. It's important to remember however that even taking drugs mentioned above is not going to prevent you from passing the infection to the sexual partner, which means a condom must be warn at all times.