Select a Topic
What is Herpes?
While most people consider herpes only to be a STD, the term actually refers to a family of highly contagious viruses that can cause a range of illnesses, from the more common cold sores, genital herpes, and chicken pox to less common brain infections (encephalitis) and even certain cancers, depending on what type of herpes virus is present.
How is Herpes Transmitted?
HSV is transmitted through direct skin contact with an infected person. The virus enters the body through tiny breaks or openings in the skin or mucus membranes, and while our skin provides an effective defense barrier against such an invasion, certain areas are more susceptible and vulnerable to such attacks.
While there are often concerns that herpes, especially genital herpes, can be transmitted via inanimate objects such as shared towels and toilet seats, this is highly rare due to the fragility of the actual virus. The herpes virus needs certain conditions to survive and thus it doesn't survive long after it leaves the body.
HSV is usually recognized by the characteristic blister type sores that develop on sensitive skin areas, the most common of all herpes symptoms. Your doctor will probably take a swab of an active sore, as lab tests will determine if the herpes simplex virus is present.
This is only accurate if sores are present, and so a medical examination should be booked before the sores dry up and heal. Type-specific blood tests can also be done to determine if you are infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2.
What are Herpes Symptoms?
The symptoms of HSV occur during outbreaks. The first outbreak often appears within two weeks of contagion and can last for several weeks. Symptoms may include sores in the affected area (the area where the virus entered the body), such as cold sores on the lips, also known as oral herpes, or sores around the genital or buttock areas. These sores often start off as small, red tingling bumps which develop into blisters that become painful, itchy, and may even ooze and bleed. These sores eventually dry out and form scabs as they heal.
The first outbreak is usually the worst and may be accompanied by other symptoms including fever, headache, muscle aches. In the case of genital herpes, painful urination, vaginal discharge, and swollen glands in the groin area may occur. After this first outbreak, the affected individual can have repeated outbreaks several times a year, although the number of these recurrent episodes generally lessens in time. Outbreaks usually occur when the body’s defenses are weak, and this can be for a number of reasons, including:
- Lowered immune system functioning
- Illness or surgery
- Irritation or friction
- Fatigue or exhaustion
During the time between outbreaks, the virus remains dormant and is generally non-contagious. However, sometimes the virus can become active without obvious sores developing. During this period, virus shedding still occurs (although less so than when sores are present) and genital or oral herpes can still be spread. For this reason, cautionary measures should be taken at all times if you have HSV to reduce transmission to others.
More concerning is the fact that the majority of people who contract herpes don’t get symptoms, or their symptoms are so mild that they are unnoticeable. The problem with this is that these individuals may not even realize that they are spreading the virus, as they don’t know that they have it.
What Causes Herpes?
The herpes virus originally enters the body through a nerve ending in the skin or mucus membrane, such as on the lip. The virus travels along the nerve to the central nervous system where it replicates causing illness, or lays dormant until a trigger or a lowered immune system cause the virus to flare up.
Help for Herpes
There is no cure for herpes simplex, although certain measures can be taken to reduce symptoms, improve recovery times, and lessen the number of outbreaks.
There are a number of antiviral drugs (oral and topical) that can be prescribed to help control outbreaks and serve as oral or genital herpes treatments.
While these drugs may help to relieve herpes symptoms and speed up recovery, it is important to note that they do not cure or make the disease less contagious, and it can still be transmitted to another person. It also needs to be noted that they often come with various potential bothersome side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
There are a number of tips that can help you quickly and effectively battle an outbreak, by methods of at-home oral or genital herpes treatments and/or preventatives. Firstly, it is essential to boost the immune system, as this is the leading trigger of new outbreaks. By looking after your overall health and learning what your personal triggers are, you can help reduce the frequency of outbreaks. It is also important to look after your emotional health, as depression rates are high amongst people with herpes. In turn, depression weakens the immune system.
More Information on Herpes
For many people, herpes is a nuisance disease that results in outbreaks of annoying and painful symptoms that come and go with little further consequence. However, it is important to realize that HSV is highly contagious and can be easily spread to others if precautionary measures are not taken. Symptom severity differs between individuals and in some cases, complications can occur. For example, studies have shown that woman with herpes have an increased chance of developing cervical cancer. For this reason, it is essential to have regular pap smears to detect cervical changes if you have HSV.
Another serious consequence of herpes in women is the possibility that it can affect a newborn child. HSV in young infants is a serious and potentially fatal disease, and the mortality rate can be as high as 25%.
Lastly, ocular herpes is a serious disease that can be caused by HSV-1 (the herpes virus strain that most commonly causes cold sores). Ocular herpes is the leading cause of infectious blindness in the western world. The herpes virus is transmitted to the mucus membrane of the eye either by touching an infected area (such as a cold sore, or oral herpes) and then touching the eye, or when the eye comes in contact with saliva (as the virus can be active in the saliva even if sores are not present). A common problem is the incorrect handling of contact lenses without washed hands, or when people use saliva instead of contact solution.
Tips for Coping with Herpes
For many people, receiving a diagnosis of HSV can be devastating, as it is a life-long ailment with no cure. While it does mean that you will have to be extra cautious, especially when involved in intimate relationships, HSV does not have to rule your life. There are many ways to make the symptoms more comfortable and reduce outbreaks to an absolute minimum.
- Use an ice pack to help alleviate pain and swelling, and take a hot bath (with a pinch of baking soda) to help reduce itching.
- Keep the affected area dry and clean.
- Avoid sexual intimacy until blisters have completely healed, and when the virus is dormant, always use a condom to reduce the chance of your partner contracting the virus.
- Apply tea tree oil directly onto the sores several times a day.
- Avoid touching, rubbing or scratching the sores and wash your hands immediately after contact with them to prevent the infection spreading to other areas or other people.
- Boost the immune system with daily exercise, sufficient sleep and a healthy balanced diet.
- Reduce stress levels and take care of your emotional well-being. Consider counseling or stress management if you struggle to do this alone.
- Increase vitamin C intake during outbreaks.
- Consider taking supplements of the amino acid L-lysine, zinc, and garlic.
- Make note of the 'trigger' foods that sometimes lead to outbreaks. Avoid spicy and acidic foods as well as foods high in salt when you have an outbreak.