Herpes is the most common virus in the United States, affecting more than 20 million people. This disease is both highly contagious and incurable. There are two herpes simplex viruses: Type 1 (hsv-1) and Type 2 (hsv-2).
The symptoms of Type 1 are cold sores in the area of the lips. The symptoms of Type 2 are sores in area of the genitals. Either may be spread by kissing or by sexual contact, including oral sex.
Herpes is contagious
Herpes spreads by direct contact, usually when the infected person is experiencing an outbreak of blisters. People can sometimes spread herpes even if they have no symptoms. Herpes can also be spread through oral sex if one partner has a herpes sore on the mouth or the genitals. The first outbreak is usually the most extensive and painful, and can last from five days to three weeks.
Herpes symptoms typically appear within two to 10 days after contact with the virus. Some of the symptoms include:
- Swollen glands, headaches, fever, numbness, tingling or burning in the genital region.
- Painful urination or frequent need to urinate.
- Blisters in the genital area that scab over and heal without scars.
- Many people experience precursor signals up to 48 hours before an outbreak. These may consist of tingling, itching or pain at the site of the eruption, or pain running down into the buttocks or to the knees. Genital herpes infections during pregnancy present special concerns because severe infection of the newborn may occur during passage through an infected birth canal. See your doctor about this.
Herpes warning signs
A prodrome is an early symptom (or set of symptoms) that might indicate the start of a disease before specific symptoms occur. In herpes, prodromes are warning signs that come immediately before an outbreak. Commonly reported prodromes are itching, burning, and tingling. Other reported prodromes are shooting pains in the legs or back.
Not everyone experiences prodromes. For some who do, they can be very mild or fleeting. With education and experience you can learn to identify prodromes.
What causes herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by a virus that invades the body through tiny breaks in the skin. After symptoms disappear, the virus retreats to the colon until it is reactivated. Diet, stress, travel and the sun play a large part in creating new outbreaks. People who are chronically ill, or under severe stress, seem to have the most attacks. Many kinds of stimuli or stress may reactivate the virus, including sexual intercourse and menstruation. Outbreaks may also occur in response to certain foods or medications.
Your doctor can often confirm herpes by the history of your symptoms, an examination of the blisters or sores, or the fluid extracted from them.
There is no known cure. There is a new discovery that will keep the herpes outbreaks dormant and in remission. See the herpes treatment page.