Herpes… a virus with different types, symptoms and often the cause of much anxiety. Dr HANX gives us the low-down.
What is herpes?
There are actually nine known herpes virus types that infect humans.
The herpes virus range includes the common herpes simplex virus (HSV) 1 and 2, the varicella-zoster virus, Epstein-Barr virus, the human cytomegalovirus, human herpesvirus (6a and 6b), human herpesvirus 7 and finally Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus.
Veering away from the medical intricacies of each virus strain, when people think of herpes this is generally type 1 and type 2. So this blog will be focussing on these more common herpes viruses.
HSV-1 and HSV-2
Both types of herpes virus, Herpes Simples Virus 1 and Herpes Simples Virus 2 are lifelong infections. Meaning that once you’re infected, whilst we can manage symptoms and flare ups, we do not have a cure. However, most of these infections are asymptomatic, meaning you don’t experience symptoms.
HSV-1 is the most common herpes virus and in 2012, an estimated 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 (that’s 67% of the population) had HSV-1 infection. HSV-1 is highly contagious and often acquired as a child, with the majority of infections causing oral herpes, or cold sores. Between outbreaks of cold sores, the virus rests dormant (and inactive) in a group of nerve cells near the ear. However, it can also spread to the genitals via oral sex, and result in genital herpes.
HSV-2 infection is almost exclusively sexually transmitted, causing genital herpes, with lesions on and around the genitals and anus. It is more common in women than men, with an estimated 267 million women and 150 million men living with the infection back in 2012. This is because the virus is more easily transmitted to women from men (in comparison to the other way around) due to differences in our genital anatomy.
As with HSV-1, HSV-2 is often asymptomatic and people are unaware that they’re infected. Between outbreaks of lesions, HSV-2 remains dormant in the body in a group of nerve cells in the lower back.
Signs and Symptoms
Many people with HSV-1 or 2 have no symptoms at all, with only 10-20% of people infected with HSV-2 aware of their diagnosis.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 have similar symptoms but in different areas, with HSV-1 being around the mouth and HSV-2 the genital area. Infected persons will often experience a tingling, itching or burning sensation in these areas before seeing blisters or open sores (called ulcers) appear. After initial infection, these blisters and ulcers can intermittently reoccur, with frequency varying from person to person.
Initial HSV-2 infection can be painful and also cause fever and body aches. Recurrent outbreaks tend to be less severe than the first, and less frequent as time goes on.
Anti-viral medications, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir, are available to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms experienced in people infected with HSV. However these medications cannot cure the infection.
Both oral and genital herpes can be spread at any time but are most contagious during an outbreak of sores. With cold sores, you should avoid oral contact and oral sex, and with genital herpes you should abstain from sexual activity whilst experiencing symptoms.
The consistent and correct use of condoms can help reduce the risk of spreading genital herpes, and should also be sex during oral sex to prevent transmission.
If you’re pregnant with symptoms of herpes, you should inform your health professionals for adequate support.
There is extensive research happening to develop more effective prevention methods against HSV, so we are keeping our fingers crossed. In the meantime, don’t forget your HANX!
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