What Is Herpes?

Herpes is a virus and sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is very easy to contract and because of this, is quite a common disease. It is caused by two separate but similar viruses called herpes simplex virus type 1 and herpes simple virus type 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2).

Herpes has no cure and stays with you for life. The symptoms and “breakouts” appear and disappear.

Both types of herpes can affect the genital area, the oral area or both. Oral herpes, as it is referred to when the mouth is infected, is usually caused by HSV-1. Genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2. Up to 80% of American adults have oral herpes and 25% have genital herpes. However, because herpes symptoms can be dormant for a person’s entire life, millions of Americans have no idea that they are infected. It is also hard to tell where a person contracted herpes because when symptoms do show up, they usually do so after many years.

As stated above, herpes can be spread easily by kissing, touching, and sexual interaction. Any sexual contact, such as vaginal, anal and oral sex can lead to an infection and can be transferred from one part of the body to another. Even quick skin-to-skin contact can result in the transmission of the virus.
It is also possible for a mother to spread genital herpes to her baby while giving vaginal birth.
Although herpes is a highly contagious disease, it is most contagious when visible sores are open or are exuding fluid. Unfortunately, herpes can also be spread when absolutely no symptoms are present. This is the case of both genital and oral herpes: they are transmitted when no symptoms are present.

History of Herpes

The history of herpes dates back to ancient Greek times. In fact the word “herpes” means “to creep or crawl” which is the way the Greeks at that time described how the sores spread from person to person. Even William Shakespeare was thought to have referenced herpes in his play Romeo and Juliet when he talks about “blisters plagues.” However, the root or origin of herpes is still widely unknown. Today, we only know that it has no cure and that it has indeed been around for a while.

Symptoms of Herpes

Symptoms of oral herpes can show up in the form of a blister or cold sore. These usually show up around the mouth or on a person’s lips. Although rare, blisters or sores can appear inside a person’s mouth, but this only usually happens during a first outbreak and does not happen again. Sometimes symptoms last for a few weeks and go away for a period of time, even years. Oral herpes symptoms are not dangerous or necessarily painful in any way, they are just very bothersome; although cold sores can be dangerous to newborns.

A large portion of individuals with genital herpes never have symptoms or have very mild symptoms that are not easily recognizable as an infection. Genital herpes symptoms show up in the form of a cluster of blisters and can show up on the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, buttocks and/or anus.

People who experience an initial outbreak usually experience the worst symptoms they will have as additional outbreaks may never happen or occur with slight symptoms.

The following are some symptoms of genital herpes:

  • blisters and/or sores in the genital area
  • a burning sensation as the urine flows over open sores
  • trouble urinating because of swelling of sores
  • open and leaking sores
  • slight pain in the infected area(s)

During a first herpes outbreak, the following can occur:

  • tender and/or swollen glands in the pelvic area
  • fever, chills, and headache
  • fatigue
  • flu-like symptoms

A first outbreak of herpes can occur between 2 and 20 days after infection. However, it can be months or years before symptoms appear.

Sores from a first outbreak can take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to heal. Additional outbreaks heal quicker, in less than 2 weeks. In people with existing illnesses, herpes can weaken the immune system and make the individual more susceptible to other sicknesses.

Diagnosing Herpes

Diagnosing herpes is easy to do with a test at your local health care provider. A series of physical exam and tests can be conducted, along with a blood test, to determine if you are infected with oral or genital herpes. Even if you are not experiencing symptoms, your healthcare provider will be able to tell if you have herpes from the test results.

If you believe you are infected or are experiencing any type of irregular sores, contact your local healthcare provider immediately and get tested. It is important to find out if your sores are indeed those associated with herpes because other STDs have similar sore-like symptoms.

Treatment for Herpes

There are medications available for the treatment of herpes and its symptoms. Available medication is helpful for quickly reducing and healing of herpes sores. It also will help in the prevention of spreading the disease.
If you are experiencing painful symptoms, taking a warm bath can alleviate some symptoms. Also wearing breathable cotton clothes can help with chafing and keeping the sores dry. Heat or cold packs can also help with reducing symptom pain. As a last measure, people have been known to take aspirin or ibuprofen for the discomfort.

What Happens if Herpes Goes Untreated?

Nothing detrimental can happen if you choose not to treat herpes. More than anything, the outbreaks are a nuisance and can bring pain and discomfort. But, because herpes is an infection with no cure, there is no treatment other than keeping the symptoms at bay.

Preventing Herpes

After the initial outbreak, when herpes shows up again it is referred to as an “outbreak” or “flare up.” As stated above, herpes does not always recur, and if it does the degree to which the outbreak occurs and the length of time between outbreaks varies by person.

Some signs that an outbreak is about to occur include tingling sensations, itching or burning sensations in the area where you had your initial outbreak.

Oral herpes can recur by things such as sunburn, an injury to the lips, stress, and menstruation.

The best way to prevent against getting herpes is to abstain from sexual intercourse; however, there are other non-sexual ways to transmit herpes. Just being aware of your surroundings also can play a huge factor in not being infected.

Here are several ways to prevent herpes outbreaks:

  • There are medications that you can take to treat your herpes mid-outbreak. Some medications are very effective for some people and not for others.
  • Getting a good amount of sleep, eating healthy and managing your stress level can prevent additional herpes outbreaks.
  • Sunburn can affect your outbreak frequency if you have oral herpes. Be sure you are wearing sunblock and be careful when out in the sun.
  • Avoiding sharing drug needles
  • Use latex condoms when you have intercourse. This will greatly reduce the risk of contracting the virus by someone who is infected.

Who Is at Risk for Contracting Herpes?

The following list includes those people that are at a higher risk of contracting Hepatitis C:

  • People engaging in high-risk sexual behavior
  • Individuals who engage in intercourse or drug related behaviors after being intoxicated
  • People who are not careful about protecting themselves in sexual situations
  • People engaging in oral sex

Statistics about Herpes

The following are some important statistics about Herpes:

  • It has been shown that the transmission of herpes can be reduced by 30 percent from using a latex condom
  • 1 in 5 people adults are infected with herpes
  • Infection in women (1 out of 4) is more common than in men (1 out of 5)
  • Approximately 25 percent of Americans have genital herpes
  • Up to 1 million new HSV-2 (genital herpes) infections are transmitted each year in the United States
  • The largest increase of genital herpes is among white teens
  • The number of people with genital herpes has increased 30 percent since the 1970s
  • Genital herpes is more common in African Americans (45.9 percent) than White Caucasians (17.6%)

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