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Skin and Herpes Simplex Viruses

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Herpes simplex viruses are categorized into two types: type 1 (HSV-1 or oral herpes) and type 2 (HSV-2 or genital herpes). Most commonly, HSV-1 causes sores (sometimes called "fever blisters" or "cold sores") around the mouth and lips. HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but most cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-2. In HSV-2, the infected person may have sores around the genitals or rectum. Although HSV-2 sores may occur in other locations, these sores usually are found below the waist.

What Causes Herpes Infections?

HSV-1, which is transmitted through oral secretions or sores on the skin, can be spread through kissing or sharing objects such as toothbrushes or eating utensils.

In general, a person can only get HSV-2 infection during sexual contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be spread even if sores are not present. Pregnant women with genital herpes should talk to their doctor as genital herpes can be passed on to the baby during childbirth.

For many people with herpes, attacks (outbreaks) of herpes can be brought on by the following conditions:

  • General illness (from mild illnesses to serious conditions)
  • Fatigue
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Immunosuppression due to AIDS or such medications as chemotherapy or steroids
  • Trauma to the affected area, including sexual activity
  • Menstruation

What Are the Symptoms of HSV?

Symptoms of HSV typically appear as a blister or as multiple blisters on or around affected areas -- usually the mouth, genitals, or rectum. The blisters break, leaving tender sores.

How Is HSV Diagnosed?

Often, the appearance of HSV is typical and no testing is needed to confirm the diagnosis. If a health care provider is uncertain, HSV can be diagnosed with laboratory tests, including DNA tests and virus cultures.

How Is Herpes Treated?

Although there is no cure for herpes, treatments can relieve the symptoms. Medication can decrease the pain related to an outbreak and can shorten healing time. They can also decrease the total number of outbreaks. Drugs including Famvir, Zovirax, Acyclovir, and Valtrex are among the medications used to treat the symptoms of herpes. Warm baths may relieve the pain associated with genital sores.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Steven Q. Wang, MD on February 25, 2011
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