Herpes Simplex Virus
Herpes Simplex Virus
What Is It?
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a common viral infection of the skin and mucous membranes. It is characterized by an inflammation of small blisters and sores closely grouped together that can be found anywhere on a person's skin. The blisters are usually painful and may cause itching, burning and tenderness around the infected area.
HSV infections can be unattractive, thus emotionally distressing and debilitating with recurring episodes. HSV is also related to the viruses that cause chicken pox, shingles, mononucleosis and the Epstein-Barr Virus.
What Causes It?
Herpes infections are caused by a virus, which can be transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact. There are two types of herpes simplex viruses; herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 or oral herpes is usually associated with fever blisters or cold sores with infections on the lips, mouth, gums and face. It is transmitted directly through oral secretions during kissing or contact with contaminated dishes, towels or lip balms. HSV-2, or genital herpes, usually results in blisters on the buttocks, penis, vagina or cervix and is sexually transmitted. Both types, HSV-1 and HSV2, can be found in either area of the body and are contagious.
There are two distinct stages of the virus: primary and recurrent. The primary infection with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 is usually more severe than recurrent outbreaks and may last from seven to fourteen days. The primary episode forms small skin blisters that eventually rupture as painful open sores. The blisters dry out, crust over and slowly heal over a period of time. During this time, the infection is generally accompanied by flu-like symptoms including: fever, headache and swollen glands, particularly in the lymph nodes near the groin for HSV-2.
Once the body is infected with the herpes virus, it lives in the body for a lifetime, generally without symptoms. This period is called latency. After each outbreak, the virus penetrates the cells of skin tissue and travels down through the nerve cell pathways where it lies dormant (inactive) or latent in the nerve roots of the body until the infection is reactivated. The virus is not apparent during this resting phase.
Recurrent episodes after the primary outbreaks are usually milder and feature most of the same symptoms that tend to erupt in the same region on the body. Recurrences are more frequent with HSV-2 genital herpes than with HSV-1 oral herpes. It is not completely known what triggers flare-ups, but there are a number of aggravating factors that may encourage recurring episodes. Prolonged exposure to strong sunlight, upper respiratory tract infections, dermabrasion, laser resurfacing or dental surgery can trigger oral herpes. Known triggers for genital herpes include surgical trauma, menstrual cycle or emotional stress.
Before an outbreak, many people experience an itching or tingling sensation, or soreness in the area where the recurrent blisters will develop. This early warning symptom indicates the virus may be present on the skin is called a prodrome which often precedes flare-ups by a day or two and is considered contagious when prodromal symptoms are present.
Herpes simplex virus can become active without causing any apparent signs or symptoms. It enters into body fluids such as saliva, semen or vaginal fluids. This type of transmission is called asymptomatic shedding. There are no symptoms during the shedding but the virus can spread and infect others during this time.
What Can Be Done?
There is no known cure for herpes simplex virus. However, there are oral antiviral medications that can help reduce the frequency of breakouts, speed healing time and lesson severity of infections. Three prescription medicines are currently approved for oral and genital herpes: Zovirax®, Valtrex® and Famvir®. These drugs are safe and have virtually no side effects. Antiviral medicine can bring great relief to people who have frequent or bothersome outbreaks and can be used for prophylactic benefit. A topical medicine called Denavir® has also been shown to be effective in reducing the time course of outbreaks.
Helpful tips for home treatment:
Keep the infected area clean and dry
Do not touch the sores
Wash hands frequently
Wear sunblock to prevent sun-triggered recurrences
Lukewarm baths may relieve pain
Avoid sexual activities.
Over-the-counter medications,such as aspirin or Tylenol can be taken to reduce fever and local tenderness
Avoid tight-fitting clothes
Do not share eating utensils or dishes
Clothing, towels and bed linens should be washed in hot water to help reduce transmission to other household members.