Herpes is a DNA viral disease that can cause a number of infections that affect the surface of the skin and mucous membranes. Itís a highly contagious virus, spread usually by touch, that cannot be cured.
There are eight different herpes viruses, but the most common are the herpes zoster and simplex viruses, which are the cause of genital herpes, cold sores and shingles. Genital herpes is caused by the Type 2 herpes simplex virus, while cold sores are caused by Type 1. The herpes zoster virus first manifests itself as chickenpox and then later in life as shingles.
The herpes simplex virus is mostly passed on from one person to the next through direct physical contact. You can catch cold sores through kissing or even by sharing a razor or toothbrush with a person with active symptoms. Although genital herpes is caused by the Type 2 strain of the herpes simplex virus, you can catch cold sores by performing oral sex on someone with genital herpes symptoms.
Genital herpes is mostly spread through unprotected sexual intercourse. Sometimes the virus can spread from one person to another by touching an area with active symptoms, and then by touching the eyes, mouth or genitals. And sometimes symptoms of genital herpes are sometimes almost impossible to spot.
Shingles is not contagious. However you can contract chickenpox, even if youíve never suffered from it, if you touch an area where active symptoms are present.
Cold sores are red blisters on a red base around the mouth that merge and scab over, lasting from a couple of days to weeks. The blisters are usually preceded by a burning or tingling sensation. Genital herpes mostly affects the genitals and symptoms include painful red blisters, skin ulcers, fever, pain when you urinate and vaginal discharge in women. An outbreak is usually preceded by a burning or tingling sensation.
People with an active shingles infection will display symptoms such as red blisters on areas where there is a large concentration of nerves, such as the base of the neck, accompanied by sometimes severe nerve pain. An outbreak of shingles will normally be preceded by a tingling or burning sensation in the affected area.
The herpes simplex and zoster viruses canít be cured. Once contracted, the virus stays in your system. Most of the time the virus will remain dormant, hiding in the nerve cells, however sporadic later infections will likely occur. Although you canít kill the virus, there are anti-viral treatments that can help to treat or prevent infections from occurring.
Itís not known what triggers an outbreak of herpes, but some connections have been made between fatigue, stress and diet and other factors that may cause your immune system to weaken.
Some people with genital herpes or cold sores may experience a high number of outbreaks during their lifetime, while others experience very few periods where the virus is active.
Not all people who have had chickenpox as children will develop shingles later in life, while other people may experience two to three outbreaks during their lifetime.
Leaving genital herpes and cold sores untreated can increase the chances of you spreading the virus to other people. Genital herpes can also spread to other parts of the body and cause complications, such as blindness, if it infects the eyes. Untreated shingles can potentially result in persistent nerve pain after the visible symptoms have gone.
Treating the infection can help reduce the length of time that you experience the uncomfortable symptoms, and can prevent future outbreaks from becoming more aggressive.
Genital herpes and cold sores are mostly spread through direct contact with an infected area, so avoid contact while the symptoms are present. Itís also possible to contract the virus through direct contact with an area where the symptoms arenít visible, so itís very important to make a note of the early warning signs of your condition, so you can take the right precautions. Itís unlikely that youíll spread the herpes virus to another person if the virus is in its dormant or latent state. Using an anti-viral treatment as soon as your symptoms appear is the best way to keep the virus dormant.
Shingles itself is not contagious, but someone can catch chickenpox from coming into contact with the virus. If youíve never had chickenpox, be careful to avoid contact with someone with shingles until the infection has cleared.
If youíve been diagnosed with either the herpes simplex or zoster viruses, there are a number of ways you can treat the symptoms. The most effective way is with prescription anti-viral treatments, such as Valtrex, Famvir and Aciclovir. They work to prevent the virus from spreading, so that your immune system can drive the virus back into a latent state. Creams are also available that can be applied directly to the affected areas, to fight the virus and soothe the symptoms.
Although herpes canít be cured, it doesnít have to impact heavily on your life. The treatments available cut down your recovery time, so that the disruption an outbreak causes is significantly reduced. Most of the prescription treatments available are more effective the sooner you take them. So take note of your symptoms so that you will be able to recognise an infection in its early stages and keep medication in supply so you can use it as soon as possible.
Sufferers of regular outbreaks of cold sores and genital herpes can also take a suppressive treatment of anti-viral medication in a low dosage, to firmly push the virus into submission.