Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, of which there are two types. Type 1 mostly causes oral herpes (cold sores), type 2 is the principal cause of genital herpes. As a general rule, however, both types of the virus can be found on all parts of the body. The prevalence of herpes is very high: roughly 90% of the adult population are carriers of the type 1 virus, and 10% to 30% are carriers of the type 2 virus.
How is herpes transmitted?
Herpes is transmitted through contact with the fluid contained in the herpes blisters, which appear primarily on lips, labia, the penis glans or the anus. Infectiousness is highest when blisters or sores are present, but transmission is also possible without those symptoms.
What are possible symptoms and consequences?
The symptoms manifest as itchy and stinging blisters, mainly in the mouth, on the lips or in the genital area. Initially, the blisters are itchy, later painful. When they burst, they leave painful sores on the mucous membrane. They are also called “ulcers” or, if they are in the mouth, “canker sores”. Additional symptoms may include painful urination, swollen lymph nodes, fever and localised aches. But an infection may proceed asymptomatically as well. For most people the adverse effects of a herpes infection are not very serious. In rare cases, especially in cases of a weakened immune system, serious health problems, e.g. meningitis, can occur.
The first outbreak of the infection is usually the most unpleasant. After an infection, the virus remains in the body for life. External factors such as stress can reactivate it, meaning the symptoms may reappear.
How is herpes tested for?
A doctor can usually recognise herpes through a simple visual diagnosis. Sometimes a swab analysis is done as well.
How is herpes treated?
Herpes is incurable; treatment of the symptoms is possible, either locally or with antiviral drugs. This can lower the frequency of a recurrence of the symptoms and the duration of the relapse. Treatment should start immediately at the time of the outbreak in order to maximise its effect.
How can infection be prevented?
Do not touch blisters or sores, but if you do, wash your hands thoroughly. During the occurrence of oral herpes, kissing and any type of active oral sex should be forgone. If blisters or sores appear on the genitalia, avoid any type of sex that involves contact with the blisters or sores. In other words,
If you suffer from more than six outbreaks a year, discuss with your doctor whether preventive antiviral treatment might be indicated.
Source: Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) 2022, lovelife.ch