Written by Allen Blue
Herpes is a group of viruses that attack parts of the human body, causing painful sores and blisters. The first type is Herpes simplex type 1, commonly called cold sores or oral herpes because the virus causes painful sores and blisters in and around the one’s mouth. Similar sores are caused by the Herpes simplex type 2 but in the individual’s genital area and is therefore known as the genital herpes. The third kind of herpes is shingles. This type of herpes is caused by the chicken pox virus (varicella zoster) and generally manifests itself on the head and face. This virus is completely unrelated to the Herpes simplex type 1 and type 2 viruses. The medical term for shingles is Herpes Zoster.
The signs of herpes simplex type 1 are blistery sores that last for a couple of days or weeks, depending on how severe the infection is. The patient often experiences a tingling or burning feeling before the sores appear. Other signs and symptoms include bleeding gums, fever, stress, exposure to UV rays (the sun), and difficulty in taking food or drink. Cold sores can be treated with an antiviral drug.
Typically, the sores take between two and six weeks to heal properly. Even when the sores have disappeared, the virus can survive in the saliva for several days. Herpes simplex type 1 is highly contagious, so ensure that all drinking and eating utensils are thoroughly sterilised. Cold sores are spread by coming into close contact with another person; even touching the skin of a person who is in the final stages of the virus can be contagious. This herpes virus is often called ‘the kissing disease’ and, while kissing is a definite way to infect another person, cold sores are more likely to be transmitted through the use of cups, spoons and plates etc.
Herpes simplex type 2 is a STD (sexually transmitted disease) known as genital herpes, with sores appearing on, and in, the genitals. A STD is passed on by vaginal secretions and semen. The genital area provides an ideal incubation place for the virus that thrives in a moist, warm environment. It is reported that more than 40 million Americans have been infected by genital herpes. Symptoms include genital discomfort, burning or itching, vaginal discharge, feeling feverish and fluish, and swollen lymph glands. As with cold sores, the symptoms can occur before the lesions appear.
Characteristics of genital herpes lesions are red, sore, raised blister-like bumps and often appear on the vagina or penis. Genital herpes lesions can also occur inside a woman’s cervix or a man’s urinary tract. During the period of infection, the patient can also experience pain when urinating, aching muscles, fever, itching, and a burning sensation in the genital area. Even when genital herpes disappears, the virus can live in the body for life, which means that further outbreaks are possible. Some patients report a return of the infection during other illnesses or when they are emotionally stressed. Genital herpes is treated with an antiviral medicine, but there is no cure for it. The medication is effective in shortening the duration of the infection and can help preventing transmission to other people.
The third type of herpes is shingles (Herpes Zoster) caused by the chicken pox virus. When a person contracts chicken pox, the virus never leaves the body and remains in the system throughout life. This virus is characterized by a very painful rash, and is often brought on by emotional or physical stress which lowers the body’s immune system. As mentioned before, although this virus is a member of the herpes family, it is not the same as cold sores and genital herpes.
Burning, pain, itching and tingling are often experienced before the shingles rash appears. Blisters will then appear – these look like chicken pox lesions and, like chicken pox lesions, they will burst, form a scab and eventually heal. Shingles is also very contagious and can be easily transmitted to people who have not had chicken pox. In fact, the newly affected person will contract chicken pox, not shingles. The most contagious stage of shingles is before the blisters start healing. When the blisters have formed scabs, the virus is no longer contagious. Antiviral drugs are used for the treatment of shingles and are most effective if administered within 72 hours of the rash appearing.
In addition to using antiviral medications to treat herpes, the infected areas should always be kept clean and as dry as possible. Cold compresses can provide relief, as well as lotions like calamine. Calamine lotion will also help dry up the sores or blisters.
Pregnant women who were in contact with someone infected with the herpes viruses should contact a doctor immediately as the fetus can be infected.