Herpes Virus FAQs
The 10 most frequently asked questions about the herpes virus
- What is herpes?
- What are the different types of herpes?
- How is herpes spread?
- What are the symptoms?
- Can it be cured?
- How often do outbreaks occur?
- What happens if I leave herpes untreated?
- How can I prevent infecting other people with the herpes virus?
- What herpes treatments are there?
- What’s the best way to manage herpes?
Herpes is a DNA viral disease that can cause a number of infections affecting the surface of the skin and mucous membranes. It’s easily spread through touch and once you contract it, you can’t cure herpes.
The most common herpes viruses are the zoster and simplex strains, though there are eight different types in total. The simplex strain causes genital herpes, cold sores and shingles, and the zoster virus causes chickenpox, or shingles in later life.
Direct physical contact is how the herpes virus is usually spread from person to person. Cold sores can be caught by kissing, or even sharing a razor or toothbrush with someone who has active symptoms.
Genital herpes is spread through unprotected sexual intercourse. If you perform oral sex on someone with genital herpes symptoms, you can catch cold sores. It works the other way round too; if you have active cold sore symptoms and perform oral sex on someone, you can give them genital herpes. Sometimes the virus can spread by touching an area with active symptoms, and then touching the eyes, mouth or genitals.
Shingles isn’t contagious, but you can contract chickenpox if you’ve never had it. Touching an area where active symptoms are present can spread this virus.
Cold sores are red blisters that form around the mouth before merging and scabbing over. They can last a couple of days or weeks. Genital herpes mostly affects the genitals, and symptoms include skin ulcers, pain when you urinate, fever and painful red blisters. Both kinds of herpes outbreaks are usually preceded by a burning or tingling sensation.
People who have an active shingles infection will usually display red blisters on areas where there’s a large concentration of nerves, such as the base of the neck. This can sometimes be accompanied by severe nerve pain.
You can’t cure a herpes zoster or simplex infection. Once you’ve contracted it, the virus will remain in your system, causing sporadic outbreaks in the future. Antiviral treatments won’t kill the virus, but they will help drive it into a dormant state so you can reduce outbreaks.
It’s not known why an outbreak occurs, but experts have made connections between fatigue, stress and diet as well as other factors which can weaken your immune system. People are affected differently by the virus; some will have regular outbreaks and some will experience very few.
Leaving genital herpes and cold sores untreated could increase the chances of you spreading the virus to other people. Genital herpes can also spread to other parts of the body and cause complications, such as blindness if the eye is infected. Leaving shingles untreated can result in persistent nerve pain, even when visible symptoms have gone.
By treating the infection, you can reduce the duration of an outbreak and lessen the time you suffer with uncomfortable symptoms. It can also prevent future outbreaks from becoming more aggressive.
You should avoid direct physical contact when you have active symptoms, because this is how the virus is most easily spread. It can take a few days for your symptoms to become visible, so you must also avoid contact if you experience the burning or tingling sensation that precedes an outbreak.
It’s unlikely you’ll pass the virus on if it’s in a dormant state. The best way to ensure the virus remains dormant is to use antivirals as soon as you notice the first symptoms of herpes.
The most effective way to treat herpes zoster or simplex is with prescription antivirals such as Valtrex, Famvir and Aciclovir. These all stop the virus from spreading, helping your immune system to push it into a dormant state.
You can also buy creams that can fight the virus and soothe symptoms, when applied directly to the affected area.
Whilst herpes can’t be cured, it doesn’t mean it can’t be treated. There’s no reason why catching herpes should impact heavily on your life. The best herpes treatment methods slash recovery time, reducing the duration of outbreaks and reducing symptoms. Most prescription treatments are more effective the sooner you take them. Understanding which symptoms are caused by an outbreak in its early stages will help you learn when to start using medication.
It’s also possible to take antivirals in a low dose to suppress the virus and push it firmly into a dormant state.