Herpes testing, symptoms, and treatment

Herpesviridae is a wide group of viruses that includes both versions of the herpes simplex virus, as well as herpes zoster, or varicella zoster, the virus responsible for chicken pox and shingles.

Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) causes oral herpes, best known as cold sores or fever blisters. Herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) is the main cause of genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease, although cases have been caused by HSV-1, especially in the developing world.

Once a person has been infected with the herpes virus, he or she will always have it. However, the virus is usually asymptomatic, and flare-ups can be minimized with lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

What is herpes?

Herpes, both the oral and genital varieties, is characterized by small, fluid-filled blisters or papules, usually preceded by a tingling or itching sensation at the site of eruption.

The virus infects the sensory nerve cells, where it remains forever after infection. Outbreaks result most commonly from immune deficiency, either as the result of serious diseases like HIV and cancer, or due to otherwise relatively harmless conditions like cold, fever, and even menstruation. While all the causes of recurrence are not known, other common triggers include wind and sun exposure, stress, and injury to the area.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

The most common symptoms of herpes are the tingling or itching sensation that precedes a blister outbreak and the blisters themselves. In genital herpes, the blisters may break open, leaving ulcers or sores that are painful, especially during urination (and especially for women).

Other symptoms may include swollen glands, head- or backaches, fever, and fatigue.

Remember that symptoms indicate a herpes outbreak, but the disease can be present even if symptoms aren't, and once a person has experienced an outbreak, he or she will always have the virus. Although the risk of contagion is minimal during latent periods, it is still possible to spread the virus, so precautions should be taken.

Herpes is highly contagious during outbreaks of symptoms.

Is there a herpes test?

Yes. Herpes testing usually involves one or more of the following:

  • an examination of the genital area (perhaps including an internal exam for women)
  • a urine sample
  • a swab of any visible sores
  • a blood sample

Although the appearance of blisters or sores generally indicates herpes, urine, blood, and swabs may be sent to a laboratory for analysis. As with HIV, herpes creates antibodies that can be detected to confirm a diagnosis even in the absence of symptoms.

What is the treatment for herpes?

There is no cure for either type of herpes, oral or genital. Thus, the best course of action is to prevent infection in the first place.

Herpes is spread through contact with the blisters, so avoid kissing or engaging in oral sex with a partner who has herpes simplex virus 1 (cold sores), and avoid oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with a partner who has herpes simplex virus 2 (genital herpes) during an outbreak. Knowing your partner's sexual history, undergoing STD screening on a regular basis, and maintaining a monogamous relationship will also help prevent the spread of the disease.

For oral herpes, a number of topical treatments exist to ease pain and shorten the duration of the outbreak. Antiviral medications may also be prescribed.

For genital herpes, treatment generally consists of antiviral medication to suppress outbreaks. Taking painkillers, wearing loose clothing, and applying ice to the infected area can help reduce pain, as can urinating in water. Drinking plenty of fluids and getting plenty of rest will also help.

Bathing in or applying a saltwater solution to sores will help dry them out, and avoiding sunlight and tanning will keep the outbreak from getting worse.