What is herpes
To most people the word "herpes" conjures up an image of genital herpes, the incurable virus that is transmitted
through sexual contact and causes blisters on the genitals. However herpes is in fact a family of viruses that is
extremely widespread and can cause a number of conditions affecting the skin, mouth, eyes, brain or, in rare cases, the whole body.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 6 people may carry some form of the herpes virus in their body, either active or inactive.
Forms of the herpes virus include herpes simplex type 1 (cold sores), herpes simplex type 2 (genital herpes), varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox), cytomegalovirus (mild hepatitis), Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis) and herpes-zoster (shingles). All of these conditions are caused by viruses in the herpes family.
Two similar conditions, herpes gestationis and dermatitis herpetiformis, both produce herpes-like blisters on the skin but are not related to or caused by any of the various herpes viruses.
The many diseases that are caused by the herpes virus may differ widely from one another, but they all share
a few common traits:
- They are generally very contagious.
- The viruses can survive in latent form for long periods of time after the initial infection.
- They are not curable. (However, there are effective treatments that can render the virus dormant, even in genital herpes)
Estimates suggest that nearly 30 million Americans are infected with herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and despite many studies over many years there has been little success in developing either a cure or an effective vaccine.
Many of the viruses in the herpes family do not recur after the initial disease outbreak, such as chicken pox for example. However all herpes viruses, when not active, remain dormant in your body, hidden in nerve tissues and escaping detection by the immune system.
It is unsure exactly how and why a latent herpes virus will suddenly trigger into an active infection, however it is known that certain stresses to the immune system appear to bring on an outbreak. These stresses that may lead to outbreaks include illness, injury, emotional stress, poor diet, over exposure to sunlight, and even menstruation.
A strong immune system seems to lessen recurrence of outbreaks, though outbreaks may continue throughout life. Studies show that
chickenpox and shingles have a recurrence of nearly zero while HSV-1 has a recurrence rate of 14 percent and herpes simplex type 2
(HSV-2) has a recurrence rate of 60 percent.
It is HSV-2 that most commonly causes genital infections, and HSV-1 that most commonly
causes infections of the lips; however either viruses can be passed from one location
to the other.
Studies have also shown that herpes sores can also provide an entryway for other infections.
Women with the herpes virus may even have an increased risk of cervical cancer and it is important for any women who has had herpes to have a cervical smear test (Pap test) every one or two years.
Whether you have been diagnosed with some form of herpes or not, practicing common sense prevention can go a long way in controlling the spread of herpes. For instance, avoid kissing persons who currently have sores on their mouth or lips.
Always practice safe sex in non-monogamous relationships and avoid all sexual contact with any partner who is exhibiting symptoms of an active outbreak of genital herpes until symptoms have disappeared. While most, but not all, male genital herpes outbreaks are easily detected, female genital herpes outbreaks can many times go completely unnoticed. In fact, many women with genital herpes don't realize they have contracted the virus until they have passed it on to a partner.
Using a condom may or may not prevent the spread of the herpes virus from one partner to another, whether one partner has an active outbreak or not; So while using condoms may be better than no protection at all, you should be aware that
even condoms are not 100% effective in protecting against the transmission of the herpes virus.
If you have a history of herpes, avoid getting overtired or allowing yourself to get run down. When you are fatigued, your immune system cannot function as well, and you may be more vulnerable to a recurrence of herpes.
If you suspect you might have some form of the herpes virus or if you have a partner that has herpes, please see your local health care provider for a diagnosis and medical advise. For more information about herpes, including clinical pictures, frequently asked questions and news about a possible herpes cure, please visit our website at