What is herpes?

Originally Published: January 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 15, 2010
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Dear Alice,

What is herpes?

Signed,
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Dear ?????,

Oral herpes, genital herpes, herpes simplex, herpes varicellus-zoster — it can be tricky to keep it all straight! Herpes is a virus, or rather, a strain of viruses that infect some specific cells in the body. There are a few different kinds of herpes, caused by two different forms of the virus, herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2) and the herpes varicellus-zoster virus. Here is some more detailed information the different kinds of herpes for you to explore:

  • Oral herpes, or "cold sores," are perhaps the most commonly-occurring form of herpes. These are small, somewhat painful or itchy pimple-like sores that erupt usually around the lips or mouth area. Cold sores are most contagious during the period of time that they appear on the skin and people catch it usually by sharing drinks or utensils with someone who has a visible sore. Most people with cold sores contracted the virus as children. Usually, cold sores initially feel like a "tingle" on the area where they are about to appear and they can last for a week or two. About 8 out of 10 adults have oral herpes. To avoid contracting oral herpes, it is best not to kiss or share any mouth-related items with someone until their sore heals completely. For most people who get cold sores, they only appear occasionally, sometimes brought on by stress or other external factors. Cold sores are generally harmless, but they can spread to the genitals and to the eyes.
  • Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, About 1 in 4 adults has it, though people who haven't had symptoms may be unaware of it (symptoms can take years to appear). Symptoms primarily include clusters of sores around the vaginal or anal area, or on and around the penis. First time outbreaks tend to be more severe than "flare ups" which may happen occasionally after the initial onset of symptoms. It is spread by genital-to-genital or genital-to-anal contact or via oral sex with someone who has oral herpes. Also, oral sex with someone who has genital herpes can spread herpes to the mouth or throat of the giver. Sores do not have to be visible for one to contract the virus! Latex barriers can be effective in prevention but sometimes, infected areas can be left uncovered by condoms especially, so it is a good idea to wait until sores have completely healed before having sex, even when using barriers.
  • Herpes Zoster is the form of the virus that causes shingles and chicken pox. When a person contracts chicken pox, usually as a child, some of the virus stays in ones body and lies dormant on nerve cells. In some individuals, the once-dormant virus can become activated again later in life. This activation usually takes the form of shingles, which can include a very painful rash or blisters on one side of the body. Sometimes, the pain is present without the rash and can stick around for a long time.

There is no cure for herpes at this time, though there are treatments and medications that can help shorten outbreaks and alleviate symptoms. In 1995, a vaccine for chicken pox became available but for other forms of herpes, vaccines have yet to be developed. For more information, feel free to check out other herpes related musings below.

So, that's the whole story on herpes. Hope it helps!

Alice