What is herpes simplex?
Herpes simplex is a type of viral infection that can cause cold sores and genital herpes. There are two types of herpes simplex: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 most commonly causes cold sores and HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes. However, both types can cause both conditions.
What are the symptoms of the herpes simplex virus?
The symptoms of the herpes simplex virus will usually vary depending upon which type you have contracted. However, HSV-1 (usually the reason of cold sore herpes) can also cause genital herpes, and HSV-2 (usually the cause of genital herpes) can also cause cold sores.
Symptoms of HSV-1
If you contract HSV-1 then it is likely that you will experience no initial symptoms until developing your first cold sores.
Children are more likely to develop symptoms from the primary infection than adults. The most common symptoms include a sore throat, swollen glands, and painful sores in the mouth. You might also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, nausea and headaches.
For most people infected with HSV-1, usually the only symptom they experience is a cold sore. This is a small, sore blister that forms around the mouth, usually on the bottom lip. It lasts for seven to 10 days and will nearly always clear up on its own without medical treatment.
The initial signs of a cold sore are a tingling, itching sensation around the mouth. You will start to notice this if you have recurring flare-ups of cold sores.
Symptoms of HSV-2
If you contract HSV-2 then it is likely that you will experience no initial symptoms. The first time you have an outbreak of symptoms, you can expect the following:
- Small, painful blisters around the genitals, rectum, cervix, thighs and/or buttocks that burst leaving open sores
- Pain urinating
- Flu-like symptoms
Women may also experience unusual vaginal discharge.
These symptoms typically last for around three weeks. The sores should scab and heal on their own, leaving no scarring. However, once you have been infected and experienced an outbreak of symptoms, you can expect further episodes of genital herpes in the future.
Typically, future episodes tend to be less unpleasant as the virus diminishes in severity over time.
What causes recurring episodes of herpes symptoms?
Recurrences of herpes symptoms are usually caused by the followings kinds of triggers:
- Being unwell
- Excess sunlight or ultraviolet light (e.g. sunbeds)
- Having a weakened immune system (e.g. from HIV)
- In women, menstruation
- Trauma to the affected area
How is the herpes virus contracted?
The herpes virus is very contagious and is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact such as kissing and oral sex.
If the herpes simplex virus is on your skin it is most easily passed onto another person via the moist skin around your mouth, genitals or anus. The virus dies very quickly when it is away from human skin, which means it cannot be contracted by sharing cutlery or towels. However, it can be spread through the sharing of sex toys without washing between uses.
To avoid contracting or spreading the herpes simplex virus, you should be very wary of engaging in intimate contact during an outbreak. As soon as you feel the tingling, itching sensation that indicates a flare-up of symptoms, you should refrain from kissing and oral sex.
The herpes simplex is most contagious during its “blister” phase when the sores are open and weeping. Dental dams and condoms can help to protect against transmission during oral sex, as can cold sore patches.
How is the herpes simplex virus treated?
There are several treatments available for the herpes simplex virus, however none of them are permanent cures.
Antiviral creams (cold sore creams)
If you have had cold sores in the past, you can buy antiviral cold sore cream over the counter in a pharmacy. The next time you start to feel symptoms starting (indicated by a tingling, itchy sensation around the mouth), apply the cream immediately. This will help to prevent the blister developing.
Antiviral tablets are most commonly prescribed for genital herpes, however they can in some cases be used to treat severe cases of cold sore. The usual prescription antiviral tablet given for primary outbreaks of genital herpes is aciclovir, which should normally be taken for at least five days. Aciclovir helps to prevent the virus from multiplying. Aciclovir and other antivirals can also be prescribed for recurring episodes, and to “suppress” symptoms before they arise and shorten the episode.
Cold sore patches
Cold sore patches are small plasters placed over a cold sore that has already developed. They help the blister to heal and shield it from sight if it looks unpleasant.
Over-the-counter or prescription anaesthetic creams can be used on genital blisters caused by herpes to ease any pain and irritation.
If you’re dealing with mild symptoms at home, make sure to stay hydrated and keep the infected area clean. You can take over-the-counter painkillers to help with any discomfort. In the case of genital herpes, avoid wearing tight clothing as this can exacerbate the blisters.