How is Herpes Caused?

Herpes Illustration

Herpes is caused by herpes simplex viruses (HSV), and it can manifest in two main forms: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). These viruses are highly contagious and can be transmitted through close personal contact. Here’s how herpes is typically caused:

  • Direct Contact: Herpes is primarily spread through direct contact with an infected person’s skin or mucous membranes. This can occur in several ways:
    • Oral-to-Oral Contact (HSV-1): HSV-1 is commonly associated with oral herpes, which causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth and on the lips. It is usually transmitted through kissing or sharing items like utensils or towels with an infected person who has an active outbreak.
    • Oral-to-Genital Contact (HSV-1 or HSV-2): HSV-1 or HSV-2 can be transmitted to the genital area through oral-genital contact, such as oral sex, if the person performing oral sex has an active oral herpes outbreak (cold sores).
    • Genital-to-Genital Contact (HSV-2): HSV-2 is most commonly associated with genital herpes. It is typically transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person who has an active genital herpes outbreak.
    • Vertical Transmission: A mother with genital herpes can transmit the virus to her baby during childbirth, which is known as perinatal or vertical transmission. In some cases, it can lead to severe complications in the newborn.
  • Asymptomatic Shedding: It’s important to note that herpes can be transmitted even when the infected person does not have visible symptoms or an active outbreak. This is known as asymptomatic shedding. The virus can be present on the skin or mucous membranes and can be contagious during these times.
  • Contact with Viral Secretions: Herpes viruses are present in the fluid-filled blisters or sores during an active outbreak. Direct contact with these secretions can also transmit the virus. For example, touching a herpes sore and then touching another part of the body (autoinoculation) can spread the virus.

Once the herpes virus enters the body, it establishes a lifelong infection. After the initial infection, the virus can remain dormant (inactive) in nerve cells and may reactivate periodically, causing recurrent outbreaks. The triggers for reactivation can vary and may include stress, illness, hormonal changes, or other factors.

It’s important to understand that herpes is a common viral infection, and many people may be infected with HSV without experiencing noticeable symptoms. For those who do have symptoms, antiviral medications can help manage and reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks.

Practicing safe sex, using condoms, and disclosing one’s herpes status to sexual partners are essential steps in preventing the spread of herpes. If you suspect you have herpes or have been exposed to the virus, it’s advisable to seek medical advice and testing for a proper diagnosis and guidance on managing the condition.

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