Herpes is a highly contagious disease caused by a strain of the herpes simplex virus. Most people infected with herpes display no noticeable symptoms, so the disease often goes undetected and untreated. Because the herpes virus can be transmitted from one person to another even when symptoms are not present, it is very important to treat the disease when it is detected. There is no cure for herpes, but there are treatments which can help control outbreaks of the virus.
There are two types of herpes, oral and genital. Each type is an infection caused when a strain of the herpes simplex virus enters the body through tiny tears in the mucous membranes in the mouth and genital areas. Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1) is the strain that causes oral herpes, an outbreak of cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. Genital herpes is caused by a different strain of the virus, Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2), and infects the genital area. However, HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes if the virus is transmitted from sores around the mouth of one person to the genital area of another during oral sex. Treatment is available for both types of herpes.
Herpes is transmitted through sexual or skin-to-skin contact. Because the virus only lives for a very short time outside the body, transmission by activities such as hand shaking is highly unlikely. The forms of skin-to-skin contact that transmit herpes are mouth to mouth, mouth to genital, mouth to anal, genital to genital, genital to anal and anal to anal. While many people with herpes never exhibit symptoms, when symptoms do occur they can be severe. The first display of symptoms, referred to as an outbreak, usually occurs within two weeks after initial contact with the virus and starts with pain or itching. In a few days sores or blisters develop in and around the infected area. The sores break open and may ooze or bleed. If not treated, the sores will eventually scab over and heal. But treatment can drastically speed up the healing process and in some cases, if started early enough, may even prevent an outbreak.
Once the herpes virus enters the body, it stays. There is always the possibility of having an outbreak and transferring the virus to someone else. Without treatment, outbreaks can occur several times a year for many years. Treating herpes with anti-viral drugs can prevent or shorten the duration of an outbreak, lessen the severity of symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting another person. Persons with oral herpes can also use topical treatments to relieve symptoms.
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Untreated herpes can certainly cause discomfort and aggravation, but there are more significant dangers to consider. People with a weakened immune system may experience harsh outbreaks and develop complications. Left untreated, herpes increases a person’s risk of getting the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Although rare, herpes can lead to a serious illness such as encephalitis or meningitis if left untreated. Herpes during pregnancy can cause brain damage, blindness or even death in a newborn infant if precautions aren’t taken.
The best way to avoid the dangers of untreated herpes is to prevent infection of the virus. The best prevention is to abstain from sexual activity or to have only one sexual partner who is free from infection. Those who do engage in sexual activity should always use a latex condom and never have sex when symptoms are present in either partner.
Linda Hinkle has been a writer since 2004. She spent 29 years teaching mathematics in public high schools and now maintains a private tutoring practice. In addition to writing about education and parenting issues, she writes mathematics assessment and test prep items. Hinkle is a graduate of the University of Central Arkansas, where she earned a bachelor's degree in education.