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What is Herpes?
How do you know if you have Herpes?
What to do if you have herpes
How to prevent outbreaks.

What is Herpes?
Herpes is a contagious viral infection caused by the HERPES simplex virus (HSV). It affects 30 million Americans. And as many as 50,000 new cases occur each year (1).

Types of herpes
Herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of HSV. HSV type 1 tends to cause sores on the lips (known as fever blisters or cold sores), but it can also infect the genitals. HSV type 2 causes sores on the genitals, but does, at times, also affect the mouth.

How it spreads
Herpes most often spreads through skin-to-skin contact with active soars. Since the virus can infect both the mouth and the genital area, it commonly spreads through sexual intercourse, oral sex, and through contact with someone who recently touched a sore. HERPES can also live on inanimate objects. While such infections are rare, you should avoid sharing a towel with a person who has an active herpes outbreak.

Sometimes people have herpes outbreaks that are not visible. Therefore, you should always use condoms when having sex with a person who has herpes, regardless of whether or not the partner has a visible outbreak.

Length and frequency
The length of an initial herpes episode is usually 2-3 weeks. After this, the virus will travel to the sensory nerves at the end of the spinal cord, where it will remain in an inactive state. In most people the virus will reactivate at times. After the first, herpes episodes usually last a day and occur at the same site as the original infection. All outbreaks of herpes are contagious.

Herpes recurrences vary in frequency and severity between person to person. Some people will only have one or two outbreaks in their life, while others may experience several attacks a year. The pattern of recurrences changes in most individuals over time. [ To Top ]

How do you know if you have Herpes?

Symptoms of an initial episode of herpes usually appear 2 to 12 days after being exposed to the virus. Typical early symptoms are:

  • An itching or burning sensation
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Abdominal pain or pressure

Within a few days, sores appear near where the virus has entered the body, i.e. the mouth or genital region. They also can occur inside the vagina, on the cervix, or in the urinary passage. At the beginning, small red bumps appear. These bumps then develop into blisters, and, later, become painful open sores. Over several days, the sores become crusty and then heal without leaving a scar. Some other symptoms that are associated with the first episode of genital herpes are:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Swollen glands in the groin area.


Because herpes can appear differently in every individual, accurate diagnosis is essential. A doctor may administer a blood test to check if the HSV is in the body. A blood test, however, will not reveal whether the individual can pass the herpes virus to another person. To determine whether herpes is contagious, the doctor will touch a cotton swab to an active legion to obtain a sample of the fluid for testing. [ To Top ]

What to do if you have herpes

Since herpes is contagious, it is very important to take a few precautionary steps to avoid spreading the virus:

  • keep the infected area clean and dry
  • try to avoid touching the sores
  • wash hands after contact
  • avoid sexual contact from the time the symptoms are first recognized until the sores have healed

There are several methods of minimize the pain and discomfort associated with herpes outbreaks.

  • Salt Baths: To clean, soothe, and dry the soars in the vaignal area, use 1 tablespoon of salt for every 600ml of water, or about a handful of salt for a shallow bath.
  • Pain relievers
  • Loose cotton underwear can help alleviate discomfort and encourage the healing process

There is no cure for herpes. Three drugs are currently available to help reduce the severity and frequency of the virus.

Acyclovir is a drug that can shorten the length of the initial herpes episode and make recurrences less severe. Acyclovir can be taken orally and must be taken with 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. Acyclovir has uncommon side effects including headaches, nausea, and diarrhea.

Famciclovir is a drug that is used to treat recurrences and prevent future outbreaks. Famciclovir reduces the amount of pain and the length of the recurrences. The side effects of famciclovir are mild with headache and nausea being most commonly reported.

Valacyclovir is a third drug that helps soars heal faster and reduces both the period of pain and the contagious period of the virus. In clinical tests, valacyclovir prevented the development of blisters in one third more patients who took the drug within 24 hours of noticing the first symptoms of the outbreak, compared to those who took a placebo (dummy pill) (3).

Alternative Therapies
Some people use organic interventions to treat herpes. Two of the most commonly used are L-lysine and red marine algae. L-lysine is an amino acid that is found naturally in some foods. L-lysine is thought to slow the replication of HSV, especially HSV1. To maximize the efficiency of this amino acid, 500 mg (miligrams) to 1,000 mg should be taken on an empty stomach, and the intake of foods such as nuts, seeds, peas, and chocolate should be reduced. The second uses red marine algae. In some lab tests, red marine algae has been shown to inhibit herpes virus, however definitive tests to evaluate this intervention in humans are lacking (4).

Learn more about alternative therapies for HSV. [ To Top ]

How to prevent outbreaks.

Though we do not know what causes the outbreaks, recurrences are thought to be triggered by:

  • Stress
  • Other illness
  • Menstruation
  • Fatigue
  • Exposure to sunlight

While outbreaks are never predictable, the number of outbreaks can be reduced through:

  • A proper diet and exercise to build up the immune system
  • Proper amount of sleep
  • Stress management techniques, such as meditation
  • Avoiding extended exposure to sunlight
[ To Top ]

Herpes can be spread to an infant during birth. The risk is greatest in babies whose mother contracts HSV during the final trimester of birth. The virus can be spread to a child through:

  • HSV being present in the birth canal during delivery.
  • Kissing by someone who suffers from cold sores.
  • In rare instances, by touching an active cold sore and immediately touching the baby.

If the mother contracted the HSV virus before pregnancy, she will rarely pass the virus to her child. Regardless of when a woman is first infected, if she has herpes and is pregnant she should see a doctor.

For more information, try visiting Herpes Simplex and Pregnancy. [ To Top ]


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This website is an information resource center and does not provide medical advice.
Information from website should not be a substitute
for medical advice from a health care professional.