June 2018

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Herpes Can Happen to Anyone

Share Facts, Not Fears

Did you know that the virus that causes “cold sores” or “fever blisters” on or around the mouth can also infect other areas of the body? The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus. And it’s very common.

Most people with herpes infection don’t even know it. They may not have symptoms or not notice them.

For people who do have symptoms, a herpes infection may show up as one or more blisters. These can be on or near the mouth, eyes, genitals, or rectum. After the blisters break, they turn into sores or ulcers. These sores are painful and take about a week to heal.

Once someone is infected with herpes simplex, the virus goes into hiding and stays in the body for the rest of their lives. The virus can re-emerge at any time and cause an outbreak. Some people have outbreaks several times per year. Tingling or burning in the area can signal that an outbreak is looming.

There are two types of herpes simplex viruses: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is often transmitted during childhood. You can get it from close contact with someone who has the infection. For example, a family member with a cold sore may kiss a child. HSV-1 is the main cause of herpes of the mouth or eyes. Although it’s possible for HSV-2 to infect the mouth or eyes, it’s usually found in the genital area.

There’s no cure for herpes. But anti-herpes medicine can speed healing of the sores. If taken every day, this medicine can also lower the risk of future outbreaks.

“It’s the first episode that is particularly important to treat,” says Dr. Jeffrey I. Cohen, a herpes infection expert at NIH. That’s because the first outbreak is often the most severe. In addition to sores, you may have a fever and body aches. Also, the nearby lymph nodes might be swollen and painful.

A doctor may suspect a diagnosis of herpes from looking at a sore. But lab tests on a sample taken from the sore is needed to confirm the diagnosis. A blood test for HSV-1 and HSV-2 is also available to confirm if someone has been infected.

Researchers are working to develop herpes vaccines. “There are two different types of vaccines being developed for herpes virus,” Cohen explains. “One is a vaccine that would prevent infection in people who have not been infected with the virus.” Cohen’s research team at NIH is working on this type of vaccine.

“The other type of vaccine is for people who are already infected,” he says. “The idea is that we could boost their immune system so that they have fewer recurrences.”

The fact that most people don’t know that they’re infected makes vaccines especially important.

When someone is diagnosed with herpes, they may feel anger, sadness, or shame. They also may fear rejection by romantic partners.

Keep in mind that herpes outbreaks can be managed. People can lower the risk of infecting someone else by avoiding direct contact during an outbreak. For those with genital herpes, using anti-herpes medicine every day and condoms during sexual activity also reduces the risk of infection for a romantic partner.

Talk with your doctor if you have questions about preventing or managing herpes. And help fight the stigma of herpes by sharing the facts in the Wise Choices box.