Herpes: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

What is herpes and is there a cure for it? Read on to learn about the contagious herpes simplex virus.

What is Herpes?

Herpes is a contagious viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two members of the herpes simplex virus family: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1, or oral herpes, can cause cold sores and blisters around the mouth and on one’s face, while HSV-2 can lead to genital herpes outbreaks.

Although generally a mild infection, herpes can lead to itchy and painful blisters that recur periodically, affecting your everyday activities. The infection may also lead to potentially fatal complications for newborns, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.

Herpes Causes and Risk Factors

Anyone can be infected with HSV, which spreads through skin-to-skin contact and exposure to the saliva of an infected person. This means that herpes can be transmitted through various forms of direct contact, from kissing to the sharing of eating utensils.

Genital herpes also spreads through unprotected sexual intercourse. Pregnant mothers with genital herpes may risk passing the infection and related complications such as meningitis, seizures, blindness or mental disabilities to their unborn children. 

Herpes Symptoms and Signs

The HSV-1 strain usually manifests as cold sores or blisters on the lip, inside the mouth or on the genitals. The eyes and nervous system can be affected too. These sores and blisters may, at times, develop into painful ulcers. Other common symptoms of HSV-1 include:
Swollen, red gums
A white coating on the tongue
Swollen neck glands
A fever 
Muscle aches 

These symptoms may not occur immediately upon infection, and could appear days, weeks or even years after you have been infected with herpes.

The HSV-2 strain can lead to genital herpes, affecting the vagina or penis and scrotum, as well as the buttocks and rectal area. This HSV strain may also infect the mouth during oral sex.

Some common symptoms associated with HSV-2 are:
An itching or painful sensation around your genitals or anal region
Painful, oozing sores
Pain during urination
Swollen lymph nodes
A fever 

Unlike most other viruses, the herpes simplex virus cannot be permanently removed from the body and continues to reside in the nerves. As such, there is always a possibility of the symptoms surfacing again. This may happen when your body is under physical or mental stress. Hormonal changes caused by changes in your body, including pregnancy and menstruation, can also cause these symptoms to flare up.

Complications of Herpes

Serious complications that may arise from an HSV infection include:
An eye infection and scarring of the eye without immediate medical attention 
Brain damage, seizures and blindness or even death of a newborn if the mother has herpes

Herpes: Screening and Diagnosis

An HSV infection is commonly diagnosed through a physical examination of a person’s skin lesions. Doctors may also conduct laboratory tests, including blood tests, microscopic examinations and viral culture tests, if results from the physical examination are uncertain. Do note that some tests are only valid in the early stages of a herpes simplex virus infection.

Herpes Treatment Methods

There is currently no cure for herpes but oral antiviral medications are available to treat sores, speed up the healing process and limit outbreaks. You may consult your doctor for more advice.

Prevention of Herpes

There is no available vaccine that prevents the spread of this contagious viral infection. However, there are ways to protect yourself and others from contracting herpes.

These include:
Not sharing food and utensils with others who have cold sores or ulcers
Avoiding close, physical contact with infected persons
Practising safe sex and informing your partner immediately if you have genital herpes
Maintaining a strong immune system through regular exercise, proper nutrition, and rest

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