Overview of Herpes Virus Infections


Genital Herpes vs Cold Sores

There are at least nine viruses in the Herpes family that cause infection in humans.

In addition to Herpes Simplex types 1 and 2, the other identified herpesviruses are: Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), the virus that causes Chicken pox, and also Shingles; Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes infectious mononucleosis; Cytomegalovirus (CMV); and Human Herpes Viruses (HHV) types 6 and 7.  Recently, Human Herpes Virus types 8 and 9 have been identified.  These other herpesviruses cause their own set of signs and symptoms, and are different from the signs and symptoms of infection caused by the Herpes Simplex viruses HSV-1 and HSV-2.

Oral Herpes Infection, aka “Cold Sores”

Statistics indicate that an average of 75% of the human population has Oral/Facial Herpes, usually caused by HSV-1, which manifests usually on the lips, and is referred to by most as “Fever Blisters” or “Cold Sores.”  (This statistic varies between 50% and 90% of the population based on demographics and socio-economic factors.)  Most people acquire the virus in early childhood through non-sexual contact with someone who has the virus on their lips.

Genital Herpes Infection, aka “Herpes”

Herpes Simplex infection is statistically one of the most prevalent STDs (sexually transmitted disease) in the U.S. and the World.  Genital Herpes is considered by some to be epidemic and spreading at an estimated rate of a half million people per year.  Some statistics indicate that as many as 1 in 6 American adults have genital Herpes, and other studies indicate a figure of as many as 1 in 4.  This translates to over 40 million, and does not include the millions more who carry HSV-1 that may cause genital Herpes acquired through oral-to-genital sex or other means.

Many researchers believe these numbers may fall short of actuality, some estimating genital herpes infection in as many as 1 in 4 adults.  Some studies have shown that upwards of 60% of people infected with genital Herpes have not recognized or admitted that they have the infection.  The shame and social stigma associated with Herpes, along with the fact that HSV can be hard to detect or identify in some individuals, is misdiagnosed at times, and is not a reportable STD, contribute to the undermining of reliable statistical evidence.

Misinformation dominates most discussions relating to Herpesvirus infections.  Even many medical professionals in the U.S. are not always abreast of the latest developments in Herpes research, diagnosis, tests, and treatment.  Many patients find their medical practitioners to be relatively unsympathetic to the physical and emotional challenges associated with HSV.  In fairness, one must understand that HSV counseling does enter a realm in which many MDs are not comfortable, or for which they may not have time, namely psychological and sexual counseling.

Herpes Simplex 2 is the virus usually associated with Genital Herpes.  However, Genital Herpes is defined by location onlly – not by virus type.  Genital Herpes caused by Herpes Simplex 1 (usually associated with Oral Herpes aka Cold Sores or Fever Blisters) transmitted from the mouth to the genitals, is on the rise… some recent research indicates that between 30% and 50% of new Genital Herpes infections are now caused by HSV1.

Herpes can be a serious health issue for certain people in rare cases.  However, Herpes, regardless of location on the body, is a skin rash that most find to be mainly inconvenient, annoying, and occasionally aggravating.

Herpes in Other Areas of the Body

Herpes is spread through direct contact.  So, a genital herpes infection will stay “below the belt” unless transferred elsewhere via direct contact or skin-to-skin transference – it won’t just show up on its own somewhere else on the body.  However, a recurrent episode may appear in any area in the genital region served by the branches of nerves connected to the sacral ganglion where the virus resides during its latent stage.  It’s often said that a recurrence of genital herpes may show up anywhere that can be covered by a pair of shorts.   This is why many people get lesions in different spots with each outbreak.  For further discussion of this aspect of herpes, please see the HerpeSite Recurrences & Outbreaks page.

Herpes can be carried in saliva from contact with an open sore, and can be passed via incidental transmission from fingers or hand when the virus is active.  Touching a sore, and then touching another part of the body, or another person’s body, can transmit the virus.  Washing ones hands with soap and water will inactivate Herpes virus that may be on skin.

Carriers of HSV who are prone to cuts on fingers are susceptible to Herpes Whitlow, or Herpes infection of the fingers.  Anyone with oral cold sores or genital outbreaks should avoid touching active Herpes lesions, wash hands right away in the event of contact, and refrain from biting nails for this reason.

A Herpes infection in the eyes can lead to severe complications, including blindness, so extreme care should be taken to avoid transmission or transferal of the virus to the eyes.

Herpes and Childbirth

Transmission of HSV during childbirth can result in neonatal infant mortality or severe congenital abnormalities.  In the past, it was a standard practice to deliver babies from an infected mother via Cesarean section.  However, there is recent evidence that mothers who have Herpes, unless they are having a PRIMARY (first time) Herpes infection during term, stand, in most cases, to deliver successfully via birth canal with a relatively low rate of neo-natal Herpes.  Working closely with your doctor and being aware of your body’s signals is key!  Medline article on Pregnancy and Herpes.

Herpes in the Gym

Herpes can be transmitted during close non-sexual physical contact, as during sports such as wrestling, where the skin may become scraped or abraded and then come in contact with another’s exposed oral herpes sore.  This is called Herpes Gladiatorum, and, more recently has been called “mat herpes.”  There’s been a lot of news about this recently.  (See our News Page for more.)

Herpes and Cervical Cancer

For years it was thought that HSV was linked to cervical cancer.  The latest reports contradict that, however, and experts no longer consider HSV to be a causative factor in cancers.  However, several strains of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus, or Genital Warts) have recently been shown to be linked to higher incidence of cervical cancer.  If you have or think you may have HPV, please seek medical advice and do additional research.


Cold Sores vs Herpes: The Media-Driven Stigma

The social stigma associated with Genital Herpes is not found with Oral Herpes.  The fear and stigma around Genital Herpes is unfounded, unfair, and solely based on the LOCATION of the infection!  Oral Herpes and Genital Herpes are a skin rash caused by a virus…  Except in exceedingly rare cases, neither will kill you, neither will cause long-term medical or cosmetic issues, neither will occur more than a couple times a year at most, and neither will prevent you from doing, being, or having anything you want in life.

We think that the antiquated puritanical MEDIA-DRIVEN LOCATIONAL prejudice about Genital Herpes needs to stop.  Between 50% and 80% of the World’s population has Oral Herpes, yet no one is running around freaking out about it or making comments about the lifestyle or character of the people who have it or writing articles about how bad it is!

One reason for this may be that Oral Herpes is generally not referred to as “herpes,” even by people who know that HSV is the cause of the outbreak.  When speaking of their oral/facial outbreaks, people say they “get cold sores,” or “get fever blisters.”  Usually, when people refer to genital herpes, they say they “have herpes.”  The difference is in “get” (which is external and less personal) versus “have” (which implies ownership and makes it seem like part of a person’s identity).  Another difference is in using the word “herpes,” to which so many people have negative associations.  Add that to the “genital” location which some people even in this day and age have issues with, and you’ve got yourself a social stigma.

To Lessen the Stigma and Change the Way You Feel

So here’s an idea: To lessen the stigma and negative associations of the word “herpes,” when referring to genital outbreaks, it can often make an emotional difference to use a different set of words to describe it.  It has been said that the words we use to describe an experience determine how we feel about it.  For example, if we say we feel “angry,” or “livid,” we’ll have a more intense experience than if we change the words to “peeved” or “miffed.”  Similarly, if we say “I am depressed,” we’ll have a much more intense and associated experience than if we say “I feel a bit off today.”  Again, the difference in those two statements is in the intensity of the words used and in the identity of “I am” versus the experience “I feel.”

An Experiment in Languaging

Since Oral Herpes is called “Cold Sores,” or “Fever Blisters,” it can help your mindset to also refer to Genital Herpes as “Cold Sores.”  Try it…  Produces a different effect, doesn’t it!  It really doesn’t matter what word you use, as long as it’s one that reduced the emotional intensity.  Also, try saying “get” instead of “have.”  And avoid saying “MY herpes” because that kind of language pattern implies that the virus a part of your identity and close to you, rather than something that is emotionally outside of you.  In addition, eliminate the words “suffer” and “victim,” and any other disempowering word that may have been in your vocabulary about yourself or the infection.  Try it for 10 days, and notice the difference in how you think about it, and yourself!

Even though feelings of sadness, loss, and anger may come up from time to time, the more you practice feeling good, the easier it gets and the longer it lasts!  Remember that all it is is a skin rash caused by a virus, the same as “cold sores.”  Any idea about the “badness” of it stems from an outdated social convention based on puritanical notions of health, sexuality, and LOCATION!  It won’t kill you and will most likely have a minimal effect on your life… unless you let it.  Congratulate yourself for overcoming, and for taking steps to improve your mind and body health!

More Helpful Hints for physical and emotional well-being can be found throughout HerpeSite.  Neither Oral nor Genital Herpes can define you as a person.  Get back out there and be the amazing person that you are.

Find out more about Herpes Symptoms, Testing Options, and Tips for Living With Herpes.