Herpes: Types, Causes & Symptoms

by Ishani Bose last updated -

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According to the American Sexual Health Association, herpes is common and at least 1 in 8 people between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes in the United States of America. After you have contracted herpes, it can be very difficult to fully eliminate it, as it can stay dormant in the body for months or years. However, what is herpes and what are its causes and symptoms? Let’s find out.

What is Herpes ?

Herpes simplex is one of the most common and easily spread infection that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world every year. Caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), this infection comes in various forms and can be caused by two different strains of the herpes simplex virus – HSV-1 and HSV-2.  Under certain circumstances or based on key risk factors, it may reappear on the surface of the skin and manifest in symptoms again. Therefore, many treatment approaches to this condition involve addressing the symptoms, rather than the underlying virus.

Types of Herpes

As mentioned, there are two variations of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. The former is commonly associated with oral herpes and will cause cold sores and fever blisters, while the latter is more often linked to genital herpes.

Oral Herpes

Medically known as Herpes labialis, this variety primarily affects the lip. According to Dr. Robert W Coombs, Dr. Jacqueline Benedetti’s study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, this disease can be passed by sexual or non-sexual contact, such as kissing, or by sharing a cigarette/beverage. It is also very difficult to eliminate oral herpes completely, and this condition is often recurrent, as it will lay dormant in the nerve tissue of the lip. Over time, the flare-ups will decrease in frequency and severity.

Genital Herpes

When it comes to a sexually transmitted disease, many people assume that if they don’t feel or see any symptoms, they are clean and healthy. However, people can have some level of genital herpes if they are sexually active but it frequently shows no or very mild symptoms in an infected host. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it is estimated that more than 1.1 billion people around the world have this infection, typically caused by HSV-2, but these symptoms will manifest in a much smaller number of people. People may have this condition their whole life and never know, as symptoms may never appear.

Causes of Herpes

The cause of this infection is sexual contact with someone who has already been infected or who is a carrier for one of the two types of Herpes Simplex Virus. However, your risk of contracting the disease is greater based on your gender, sexual activity, bladder problems, previous sexually transmitted diseases and a weakened immune system.

Gender

A study published by a team of researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, in the AIDS (London, England) Journal states that women are more likely to contract this infection than men, as this infection is easier to spread from men to women, rather than the other way around.

Sexual Activity

As a sexually transmitted disease, this infection is spread during sexual contact, and can be passed even if you are wearing a condom. A study published in the British Medical Journal states that the more sexually active you are, and the more partners you have, the higher your chances are of contracting this infection, both the oral and genital varieties.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

A study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome states that if you have a history of other sexually transmitted diseases, or are currently suffering from one, there is more likely to be an inflammation, irritation or broken skin, making it even easier for the virus to take hold.

Immune System

A report published in the Annals of Neurology states that if your immune system has been compromised for any reason, whether by another illness or an autoimmune disease, your chances of contracting the HSV virus is significantly higher.

Bladder Problems

If you are experiencing bladder problems of any kind, your urethra may be inflamed, providing an ideal situation where the infection can grow and spread without fear of it being flushed out by the body.

Symptoms of Herpes

Depending on which type of infection you contract, your symptoms may be somewhat different, and this is particularly true if you develop one of the more infrequent types, such as herpes gladiatorum, meningitis or esophagitis.

Oral Herpes

Dr. Richard J Whitely, in his study published in the Lancet Journal, states that the initial symptoms of herpes may be accompanied by a burning or stinging pain in the area, along with a sore throat, stiff neck or enlarged lymph nodes. The flare-up of the oral variant of the disease appears as a small blister or sore on the lip and may last for up to 10 days. The blister could appear as much as 5-10 days after the initial exposure to the virus. Apart from these, there could also be small lesions on the cheek and gums.

Genital Herpes

Another report published in the Lancet Journal states that the symptoms of the genital variant include pain or irritation on the genitals, along with small red bumps or tiny white blisters. Ulcers may subsequently form, which can crack or bleed, thus causing a scabbed-over area on the genitals that is unsightly and potentially painful.

Herpes Gladiatorum

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine states that herpes is known to affect the fingers but the symptoms can include a rash or an inflamed area on the chest, stomach, neck, legs, and face. Fever, sore throat and enlarged lymph nodes are also seen with this variety of the virus.

Meningitis

A report published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases states that Meningitis is a serious infection of the brain, which is believed to begin with a reoccurring flare-up on the face, and then transmitted to the brain and its temporal lobe. This can cause inflammation of the brain and potentially lethal side effects; this is the deadliest variety of this infection.

Esophagitis

Upper gastrointestinal bleeding and painful swallowing are common symptoms of this herpes variety; Weight loss, fever, and persistent hiccups are the other symptoms that may indicate a herpes infection of the esophagus, says a report published in the Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

Given that this disease doesn’t fully go and the virus remains dormant in the body for months, and in some cases for years as well, it would be advisable to seek medical help as soon as possible. This will help in early detection and prompt treatment.

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About the Author

An alumnus of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Ishani is a journalist-turned-content writer, with an avid interest in politics, history, fashion, food, health, arts, and culture. She is a food fanatic, who loves to try out interesting and healthy recipes in her free time. When she isn’t writing or cooking, you’ll find her Instagramming (more often than she’d like), wasting time on an assortment of things such as shopping, netflixing, and chasing her up-to-no-good pet cat throughout the house.

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