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What is Herpes Simplex?

Most people have heard of herpes and many know that it is sexually transmitted.  However, there is a lot of confusion about the two different types of herpes simplex virus (HSV)-Type I and Type II-and how they may be passed between people.  Both types of HSV can cause blisters almost anywhere on the skin, but most sores are around the mouth or in the genital or buttocks area.   Both types of infection can be spread to an unaffected part of the body by direct contact after touching a herpes lesion.

HSV infections are painful, contagious, unattractive, and can reappear.  For some people (pregnant women, chronically ill or elderly people, or newborn babies), these infections can also have serious consequences.  

The Type I HSV commonly causes cold sores in or around the mouth and face, although they can also appear in the genital area or in wounds anywhere on the skin. These often begin during childhood and are easily transmitted by casual kissing; sharing drinks, food, or utensils; or sharing towels.  Symptoms are generally mild and rarely require medical treatment.  HSV Type I blisters are tiny, clear, and fluid-filled. 

HSV Type I infections are either primary (the first time) or recurrent (when they come back). A primary infection sore can appear two to 20 days after initial contact and can last from seven to 10 days.  It is usually very difficult to tell who gave it to you.  Primary infection sores heal completely and rarely scar. However, the virus remains in the body, residing dormant in nerve cells until the next infection. 

Many people will not have a recurrence; those who do may have it in the same place or nearby.  Some infections recur every few weeks; others recur sporadically.  Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than primary infections.  In some patients, recurrences can be brought on by menses, fever, undue stress or sun exposure.  In many patients, however, there is no predictable causative factor.

Created: 8/8/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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