Herpes is an illness caused by a virus that as many as 45 million Americans have been exposed to at some point in their lives, and most of them are not even aware of it. The virus can hide in a dormant form undetected for years, and then suddenly break out, resulting in a painful attack. Is there anything we can do to lower our risk of contracting herpes, or are we simply at the mercy of this aggressive virus? Let’s take a look at the facts.
What is Herpes?
Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), which can only be spread through intimate sexual contact of any kind with an infected person. Herpes cannot be spread through the air, or by contact with objects such as toilet seats, or in swimming pools or hot tubs. There are eight types of human herpes simplex viruses, only two of which can cause herpes: type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). An HSV-1 infection most often results in oral herpes, causing cold sores or “fever blisters.” HSV-2 is responsible for the vast majority of genital herpes (90% of cases), but HSV-1 may cause genital infections too. Genital herpes causes painful, fluid-filled blisters in the genital area. The word “herpes” comes from the Greek herpestes, which means creeping. This is in reference to the snake-like pattern the blisters often form.
The herpes virus is widespread, but it infects some parts of the population more than others. 40,000 subjects were analyzed in a study undertaken from 1988-1994 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By measuring herpes virus antibodies found in these individuals, certain statistical conclusions were reached. It was found that more women (26%) than men (18%) had been exposed to HSV-2. 46% of African-Americans had been exposed, as compared to 22% of Hispanics and 18% of Caucasians. Based on this study, it was calculated that 45 million Americans have been exposed. Even with these rather high figures, less than 3% of the adults in the study reported that they had ever experienced a genital herpes outbreak.
Why Are So Many People Exposed to the Virus, but Show No Symptoms?
This is a very good question. (I’m glad I asked it!). It has everything to do with how the virus operates once it has invaded a person’s body. Viruses and bacteria are two different animals. Bacteria can reproduce themselves independently, while viruses must have the help of a cell to do their dirty work. Once a virus has entered a cell, it strongarms the cell and forces it to make more virus. A human cell infected with the herpes virus may manufacture many new herpes viruses before it is killed by the immune system. The sores that herpes produces are actually due to cell death. This is the scenario for an active herpes attack. However, some herpes viruses may take another route, and decide to hide out in the cell they have chosen instead of making new viruses. This is known as latency. Herpes likes to go latent inside cells in our nervous system called neurons. Its favorite place to hide is in the neurons at the base of the spinal chord. The virus may remain latent for any amount of time, from days to years. At some point the virus comes out of hibernation, and the neurons are stimulated to produce herpes viruses. This causes an active herpes attack. Recurring attacks will form sores at the same location as the primary attack. To confuse things even further, some individuals will at this point, even though the attack is active, not develop any visible sores or blisters. Thus they can be contagious and spread the disease without being aware of it. Researchers estimate that up to 75% of people infected with herpes do not even know that they have it.
What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?
The primary or initial attacks of herpes are usually more intense than subsequent ones:
- Oral herpes, usually caused by HSV-1, may result in fever, a painful sore throat, and/or swelling and open sores on the gums and inside the cheeks. These symptoms typically occur 2-12 days after exposure to the HSV-1 virus.
- Genital herpes, almost always caused by HSV-2, produces symptoms 2-10 days after exposure. Genital herpes has a “pre-phase” called prodrome. This is a phenomenon whereby the patient experiences a foreshadowing of the symptoms to come. During prodrome, patients often have stabbing pain, itching, burning, or tingling in the genital area or on the legs or buttocks where the blisters will eventually form. This may last anywhere from several hours to several days before the true symptoms will appear. At that point, small red bumps form that soon turn into blisters. These blisters may be filled with fluid or pus, and often burst and become painful open sores. Eventually they become covered by a scab. The pain usually subsides after approximately two weeks, and the wounds heal without scarring in three to four weeks. Patients must be careful not to touch the sores and then touch themselves. This can spread the infection to other parts of the body such as the mouth or eyes.
- Other common complaints called “constitutional symptoms” occur in about 70% of primary genital herpes cases. These include: painful swollen lymph nodes, headache, fever, chills, fatigue, muscle aches, and poor appetite. These are worse at the start of the outbreak, and usually dissipate within a week.
- Women often experience more painful, intense symptoms during a primary genital herpes attack than do men. Blisters and sores may appear throughout the genital area, as well as on the thighs and buttocks. Sores on the cervix cause a watery discharge. Many women also develop a yeast infection as a complication.
- Men may also get painful sores anywhere in the genital area, as well as on the thighs and buttocks. Some may have a urinary discharge as well.
- Both genders may have difficulty urinating, and urination may become painful too, often due to swelling of the urethra. Constipation and impotence may also be a problem. Throat infections are another common symptom shared by both sexes.
How is Herpes Diagnosed?
The symptoms are often the only clue needed to suspect herpes, especially if the patient has had previous herpes infections. There are laboratory tests available as well. A Tzanck test can be helpful. This involves making a tissue culture from a sample taken from an active blister. A blood test can also be given which reads herpes antibodies levels in the body. These are not always accurate though, due to the nature of the virus. When symptoms appear, every effort should be made to confirm herpes. Other serious medical conditions may also cause genital sores, and making the wrong diagnosis may be dangerous. Other illnesses that may appear to be herpes include: syphilis, inflammatory bowel disease, Behcet’s Syndrome, chancroid, and candidasis.
One type of herpes deserves special mention. Neonatal Herpes Infection is a form of herpes that is passed from mother to baby. It can be contracted in the womb if membranes rupture early, or by passing through the birth canal of an infected mother. Since a newborn can become infected without the mother even knowing she has herpes, many believe all babies should be tested for herpes. Doctors will usually perform a Cesarean section on a woman who has an active infection.
Such great care is taken with neonatal herpes infection because it is a very serious and life-threatening condition. Even with intervention, many babies will not survive, and those that do often suffer serious damage to the nervous system.
What Factors Increase (or Decrease) the Risk of Developing Herpes?
Obviously, since herpes is an STD, promiscuity is the best way to contract the disease, if one wanted to do such a thing. If your spouse is infected, take special care to avoid relations during an active herpes attack. Also, if you are in the active phase, do not touch your sores and then touch your body elsewhere. This will spread the infection to other body parts.
The mainstream medical community usually prescribes antiviral drugs to treat symptoms. There are also many dietary, herbal, and natural remedies that can lessen the symptoms during an attack, and prevent future attacks.
- Stress is thought to be a factor that can bring on attacks. Taking steps to manage stress in your life is a great way to fight herpes (and just about every other disease condition known to man). Try to get enough sleep. Getting a massage can help you to relax and have more serenity. Maybe a hot bath would help too. Avoid getting too much sunlight. Eat a healthy, balanced diet (more on that in a moment). Get regular exercise. Breathe deeply, and get out in the fresh air whenever possible. This helps you to get enough oxygen, and a lack of oxygen puts the body in a weakened state, making you more susceptible to disease of any kind.
- Diet is also a huge factor, as in most illnesses. Eating well is one of the best defenses against all disease. There are some dietary factors that apply specifically to herpes patients:
Ø The replication of the herpes virus seems to be partially dependent on two amino acids called lysine and arginine. When there is too much arginine and not enough lysine, herpes finds it easier to proliferate. Putting that ratio back into balance will make it harder for the virus. Thus, loading up on foods high in lysine and avoiding foods high in arginine is a good strategy.
Ø To boost lysine levels, eat lots of legumes, poultry, fish, lamb, cheese, and most vegetables. Lysine supplements may also be used.
Ø To lower arginine levels, avoid foods such as: chocolate, peanuts, seeds, almonds, and other nuts.
- Some herbs have proven helpful for many folks as well:
Ø Zinc sulphate ointment applied to sores helps them to heal faster.
Ø Red marine algae can be applied topically and taken orally to aid both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections.
Ø Lithium succinate ointment seems to lessen herpes virus replication.
Ø Ointment of glycyrrhizinic acid (a component of licorice) inactivates the virus in some patients.
Ø Tea tree oil or vitamin E applied topically dries up the sores more quickly.