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Herpes
Simplex

What is Herpes Simplex? 

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:

  • Oral herpes.
  • Mouth herpes.
  • Herpes simplex labialis.

Herpes simplex viruses are contagious, even when you do not see sores.

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.

What are some signs and symptoms of Herpes Simplex? 

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:

  • Tingling, itching, or burning: Before the blisters appear, the skin may tingle, itch, or burn for a day or so.
  • Sores: One or more painful, fluid-filled blisters may appear. Blisters break open and often ooze fluid and form a crust, before healing. The first time sores appear, they will show up between 2 and 20 days after a person has contact with an infected person. The sores can last from 7 to 10 days. Where the sores appear often varies with type:

Oral herpes (HSV-1): Most blisters appear on the lips or around the mouth. Sometimes blisters form on the face or on the tongue. Although these are the most common places to find oral herpes, the sores can appear anywhere on the skin.

Genital herpes (HSV-2): Sores typically occur on the penis, vagina, buttocks, or anus. Women can have sores inside the vagina. Like oral herpes, these sores can appear anywhere on the skin.

  • Flu-like symptoms. Fever, muscle aches, or swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck (oral herpes) or groin (genital herpes) are possible.
  • Problems urinating. People (most often women) with genital herpes may have trouble urinating or have a burning feeling while urinating.
  • An eye infection (herpes keratitis). Sometimes the herpes simplex virus can spread to one or both eyes. If this happens, you can have pain, light sensitivity, discharge, and a gritty feeling in the eye. Without prompt treatment, scarring of the eye may result. Scarring can lead to cloudy vision and even loss of vision.

If you develop signs and symptoms of herpes simplex, you can expect to have these for as long as listed below:

  • Oral (mouth) herpes: 2 to 3 weeks
  • Genital herpes: 2 to 6 weeks (the first outbreak)

Who gets Herpes Simplex? 

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 child can get this virus from an infected adult. A kiss, eating from the same utensil, or sharing a towel can 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: 

  • Are female.
  • Have had many sex partners.
  • Had sex for the first time at a young age.
  • Have (or had) another sexually transmitted infection.
  • Have a weakened immune system due to a disease or medicine.

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:

  • Stress.
  • Illness.
  • Fever.
  • Sun exposure.
  • Menstrual periods.
  • Surgery.

What are the treatments for Herpes Simplex? 

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:

  • Acyclovir
  • Famciclovir
  • Valacyclovir

Taken daily, these medicines can lessen the severity and frequency of outbreaks. They also can help prevent infected people from spreading the virus.