Understanding Viral Herpes Conditions

Wednesday 27 January 2021
Dr..Jubil Tom

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jubil Tom, MD

on 9 March 2021

Table of Contents

I. What is a Virus, and How are They Transmitted?

II. Herpes 101

a. Oral Herpes

b. Genital Herpes

III. What is Shingles?

IV. Risk Factors for Viral Infections

V. General Treatment Options for Herpes

What is a Virus, and How are They Transmitted?

All of us have been affected by a virus at one time or another. Viruses are microscopic parasites that are responsible for seasonal flu and are the cause of contagion. Viruses like COVID-19 and H1N1/swine flu in 2009 caused severe outbreaks around the world. These microscopic viruses can cause sweeping pandemics, affecting millions of people at a time. Many viruses are 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt. 

Unlike bacteria, viruses cannot thrive and reproduce themselves outside of the host body. Viruses can be incredibly deadly and prolific, several affect people throughout their lives and cause mild to moderate symptoms. Herpes is one group of viruses that spread from person to person contact or sexual intercourse. This transmission differs from other types of viruses, which are spread through airborne respiratory droplets. [1]

There are several different types of herpes, and each one affects the infected person differently. Oral herpes is a fairly common condition, affecting around half of teens and adults under 50 years old in the United States. Because it is so common, there are several medications available to treat herpes, including Zovirax (acyclovir), Zovirax cream, Valtrex (valacyclovir), and Famvir (famciclovir). Read on to learn more about symptoms and treatments for herpes. [2]

two people kissing

Herpes 101 

Herpes refers to a family of viral infections characterized by painful, fluid-filled blisters on the mouth or genital area. Herpes is also referred to as herpes simplex. Herpes is incredibly contagious and is spread through direct contact with herpes sores, blisters, saliva, skin, or mucous membranes.

Even though it is contagious, herpes is preventable and can be controlled. In some severe cases, herpes can result in meningitis, blindness, or death of a newborn exposed to the virus during pregnancy or delivery. [3] 

a. Oral Herpes

Oral herpes is also known as herpes simplex labialis and causes small, cold sores on the lips, mouth, or gums. Oral herpes is caused by HSV-1 and HSV-2 (two variants of herpes). Around 50% to 80% of people in the United States have oral herpes. Oral herpes is typically harmless but can cause unsightly sores on the mouth. These sores can become painful when you experience an oral herpes flare-up due to illness or stress. Symptoms of oral herpes include: 

  • Fever
  • Itching, discomfort, or pain that appears a few days before blisters and sores arrive
  • Small blisters filled with yellowish fluid that break and ooze
  • A yellow crust on top of raised, red sores
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen neck lymph nodes [4]

a person picking up food with their hands

b. Genital Herpes

This is a common sexually transmitted disease that leads to outbreaks of blisters and lesions on the genital area. This is typically caused by HSV-2 and affects one out of six people 14-49 years of age. The more sexual partners a person has, the more likely they are to transmit this herpes infection. Genital herpes can spread even if no blisters are present. Once infected, it may take two to three weeks for symptoms to present themselves. This virus can also be passed from an infected mother to a newborn during vaginal delivery. Symptoms of genital herpes include: 

  • Decreased appetite
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Pain or itching near or on the penis, vulva, or rectum
  • Blisters on the genitals, vagina, cervix, buttocks, or anus
  • Fatigue
  • Unusual vaginal discharge [4]

What is Shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection caused by herpes viruses. This disease is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and affects anyone who is not immune to chickenpox. If you have had chickenpox in the past, you may develop shingles later in life. The exact cause of shingles is unclear, but it can create several unpleasant symptoms once it enters your body. 

Those over 50 years old are more likely to experience shingles. It can be dangerous for some people, and infected people should avoid contact with others to prevent transmitting the disease. Shingles is similar to chickenpox and cause blisters and a painful rash to appear on the skin. [5] This rash may last for seven to 10 days and clears up within four weeks. Other symptoms may include: 

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Upset stomach [6]

Risk Factors for Viral Infections

Each type of herpes virus is slightly different, but they all have similar transmission patterns. Coming into contact with herpes or shingles sores may pass the virus onto others. As mentioned above, shingles is more common in older people. Other risk factors for shingles include having diseases that weaken the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer. [5]

an older person walking on a boardwalk

Almost anyone can contract oral herpes. It can be spread by close contact with someone who has a cold sore and using contaminated items, like razors, towels, and eating utensils. Kissing someone with a cold sore will greatly increase your risk of developing herpes. Stress on the body can also weaken the immune system and lead to cold sores. [7] Having sex with a person with genital herpes is the biggest risk factor for HSV-2. Genital herpes is more common in women than men. It is more common in teens and young adults who are more likely to have unprotected sex. [8] 

General Treatment Options for Herpes Infection

Once herpes is in the system, it will always be present. There are no cures for herpes, but several antiviral drugs are available to prevent symptoms and transmission. Zovirax (acyclovir), Zovirax cream, and Valtrex (valacyclovir) are antiviral drugs that treat cold sores, shingles, and chickenpox. It does not cure the infection but heals the sores and keeps new ones from forming. It also helps reduce pain caused by blisters. [9]

Famvir (famciclovir) is an antiviral drug that targets genital herpes infection as well as shingles. It does not cure genital herpes but greatly reduces pain and discomfort and heals sores faster. It is essential to inform any sexual partners if you are diagnosed with genital herpes. Your doctor will prescribe these medications if you are diagnosed with a herpes disorder. [10]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.