September 23, 2010 Kim Goldman

Herpes is an infection and is caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). When the infection is on the mouth, it is called oral herpes. When it is on or near the sex organs it is called genital herpes.

What are the symptoms of oral herpes?

Have you ever heard of “cold sores” or “fever blisters”? These are symptoms of oral herpes. The sores usually show up on the lips or inside of the mouth. The sores are harmless in children and adults but they are very harmful to newborns. Oral herpes in adults is usually a “flare-up” of a childhood infection.

How is herpes spread?

Touching, kissing, and sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse spread herpes. It can be passed from one partner to another, or from one part of the body to another. It was once thought that contact with open sores was the only way to get herpes. We now know that it is possible, but less likely, to get herpes from someone at a time when there are no sores. Moist areas of the mouth, anus, vulva, vagina, penis, and the eyes are very easily infected. Skin can be infected if it is cut, chafed, or burned or has a rash or other sores.

How is herpes diagnosed?

Herpes is diagnosed by testing fluid taken from the sores. Sores are often seen during pelvic exams. If you suspect you have herpes sores, see a clinician as soon as possible. It is important to be sure that the sores are herpes. Other serious sexually transmitted infections, such as syphilis, may look like herpes but need different treatment. A blood test can tell if you have been exposed to the herpes virus.

How can symptoms be relieved?

Warm baths or wet tea bags (not herbal) may give relief. Loose cotton clothes will help prevent chafing. Because moisture can slow healing, keep the sores dry by sprinkling cornstarch in underwear. Cool compresses held to the sores a few minutes several times a day may help. Ice packs may also be soothing. Aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen may help relieve pain and fever.

A clinician can prescribe acyclovir, famiciclovir, or valacyclovir. They may speed up the healing of sores and weaken the virus. Using these medicines only during outbreaks is called episodic therapy.

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