Herpes

  • Basics

    Herpes is a common viral disease characterized by painful blisters of the mouth or genitals. The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes painful blisters, usually affecting the mouth or genital area. The anal region, eyes, and fingers are involved in some people. Herpes is a lifelong disease with no cure, but most infected people have long periods without symptoms, interrupted by only occasional outbreaks. While it is a minor, annoying problem for most people, it can be a serious disease for newborns, pregnant women, and those with immune disorders.

    Severe and even fatal forms of herpes, with generalized disease and nervous system involvement, can develop in newborns or in those with immune deficiencies (such as those with AIDS or certain cancers). In rare instances, women who acquire genital herpes for the first time in late pregnancy may have a severe disease course. Antiviral medications are available that can moderate symptoms and reduce the death rate in these most serious cases.

  • Causes

    Herpes is caused by either of two viruses that are transmitted by direct contact. Once established, the virus remains dormant in the body, and activates during times of stress. Herpes is caused by two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV): HSV-type 1 (HSV-1) and HSV-type 2 (HSV-2). Either virus can cause blisters in the mouth or genital region, but HSV-2 typically affects the genitals, whereas HSV-1 most commonly affects the mouth.

    HSV enters the body through a mucous membrane or a small opening in the skin as a result of direct contact (i.e., through touching, kissing, and vaginal, oral, or anal sexual activity). Although the virus is most contagious through direct contact with herpes sores, it can also be transmitted through saliva, or through skin contact with people who have no visible sores or other symptoms.

    After the primary infection, the herpes virus travels along the nerves and becomes dormant within nerve cells. The virus is reactivated during times of stress, and travels back out through the same pathway, causing characteristic recurring crops of blisters.

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