Herpes is among several inflammatory viral diseases of the skin or nervous system, especially herpes simplex, characterized by the formation of small watery blisters. There are two kinds of Herpes, Type 1 and Type 2.
Herpes Simplex Type 1 typically involves an infection of the mouth with what are commonly known as cold sores or fever blisters and is called oral herpes. Herpes Simplex Type 2, called genital herpes, is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that usually affects the genital area with very similar blisters as is seen with Type 1. It is the second most common form of herpes.
While Type 1 generally manifests itself in the area of the mouth and is the most common, it is increasingly common for it to be found in the genital area as well. In fact, it is possible that Type 1 or Type 2 herpes may be found anywhere on the body. There are additional types of herpes that are far less common, including ocular herpes, cerebral herpes, encephalitis, herpetic whitlow, herpes gladiatorum, Mollaret's meningitis, neonatal herpes and others.
How is Herpes Transmitted?
Transmission of herpes simplex most commonly occurs by direct contact with a blister or the body fluids, including saliva, semen, vaginal fluid or the fluid from herpetic blisters of another infected person.
Skin-to-skin contact might also cause transmission during a period of asymptomatic shedding. The virus moves through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Condoms are the most recommended means of preventing transmission of the virus but they are not 100% effective.
While oral herpes is not difficult to detect when the patient experiences facial sores or blisters, genital herpes (which sometimes does not present symptoms) may require laboratory testing for detection.
The herpes simplex virus can cause an individual to suffer from blisters or cold sores around the mouth and/or genitalia. These same sores can also be found in other areas of the body such as the hands, the eye, the central nervous system and the brain. It is also possible to have contracted genital herpes and to suffer no symptoms at all or to be asymptomatic.
Regardless of where on or in the body that the herpes virus manifests itself, it is always true that once it has infected a person, it will remain. Herpes virus enters the nerves where the infection occurs and then migrates into the cells of neurons. When the infection occurs, the human body produces antibodies to prevent another infection of this kind in a different part of the body, though it is still possible to contract genital herpes after becoming infected with oral herpes.
Individuals with herpes experience periods of time in which the disease actively manifests itself in the form of blisters and sores and then periods of time in which there is no evidence of the disease. The active periods usually last from one to 21 days, while the period of remission might last much longer. There is no established cause for the recurrence of the symptoms. As time passes with the disease, the periods of active symptoms usually decrease in frequency.
People who have herpes will on occasion experience asymptomatic shedding, usually one week prior to and one week after actual symptoms of herpes appear. When asymptomatic shedding occurs, herpes sufferers can transmit the virus through their skin, which is often the manner in which genital herpes is transmitted.
As of yet, there is no cure for herpes. While there are treatments for the symptoms of herpes and the shedding of it, there is no medicine that will remove the virus from the body. Normally patients are advised that, with time, the frequency and severity of the recurring sores and blisters diminishes. Regardless of how much time passes, however, a person with the herpes virus may always be contagious to others.
Prevalence of Herpes
The prevalence of herpes is shocking. Genital herpes has infected nearly 20 percent of the American population. In fact, in the United States, more people have genital herpes than all other sexually transmitted diseases combined. That amounts to 50 million people in the U.S. alone.
Moreover, the vast majority of people with some form of herpes, over 80 percent, remain undiagnosed. Contracting herpes can become more common as people age. By the time a person reaches the age of 40, the prevalence of some form of herpes rises to about 26 percent. Genital herpes is slightly more common in women, affecting about 25% of the U.S. population. There is currently no vaccine or cure for the herpes simplex virus.