What is herpes?

Originally Published: January 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 21, 2014
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Dear Alice,

What is herpes?


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 is usually the result of a HSV-1 infection and is the most commonly-occurring form of herpes. Symptoms typically include cold sores (small, somewhat painful or itchy pimple-like sores) or fever blisters that appear around the lips or mouth area. Both cold sores and fever blisters are most contagious during the period of time that they appear on the skin and people commonly transmit oral herpes 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 or fever blisters initially feel like a "tingle" on the area where they are about to appear and they can last for a week or two. Oral herpes is pretty common: about 8 out of 10 adults have it. To avoid contracting oral herpes, it is best not to kiss or share any mouth-related items that come in contact with the mouth until sores heals completely. For most people who get cold sores or fever blisters, 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, commonly caused by HSV-2 (though it also be caused by HSV-1), is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. About 1 in 4 adults has it, though because many people are asymptomatic (it may take years to appear), those who haven't had symptoms may be unaware of it. 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 skin-to-skin contact during, vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can also be transmitted 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! Barriers, like male and female condoms, can be effective in prevention. Sometimes, though, infected areas can be left uncovered by condoms. So, it’s a good idea to wait until sores have completely healed before having sex, even when using barrier.
  • Herpes Zoster is the form of the virus that causes shingles and chickenpox. When a person contracts chickenpox, usually as a child, some of the virus stays in the 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. Vaccines for chickenpox and shingles are 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 story on herpes. Hope it helps!