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Is herpes dangerous or life-threatening? Once I have herpes, will I get the virus for life? Is it curable? What are the types of treatment available for cold sores and genital herpes? Read below to find out more!
Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. It is very common around the world. According to WHO, an estimated 3.7 billion under the age of 50 are diagnosed with HSV-1 infection globally. Whereas, an estimated 491 million people aged 15–49 (13%) worldwide have HSV-2 infection.
There are 2 types of herpes: HSV type 1 (oral herpes) and HSV type 2 (genital herpes). Once you have the virus, it stays in your body. They can cause painful blisters or ulcers at the site of infection. Herpes is not a life-threatening viral infection, but it may cause significant and widespread complications in those who have a weaker immune system (i.e. pregnant women, newborn infants, people with HIV etc). If you kiss or touch someone or have sexual contact with an infected person, you’re most likely at risk of getting infected.
Image credit: NHS
Cold sores, also known as oral herpes, are small, fluid filled blisters around the lips and mouth. You may get cold sores due to direct contact with the blisters or saliva by sharing drinks or utensils, kissing or having oral sex with an infected person. A day or two before the cold sore appears, you will feel tingling and itching around the lips. A collection of small blisters will then form around the lips, accompanied by pain, tenderness and burning feeling. However, do note that some people with HSV-1 will not have any symptoms as the herpes virus can remain in its inactive state until reactivated by some triggers such as stress, fatigue, fever or infection.
Image credit: Healthline
Cold sores are usually contagious in the first few days when blisters are formed until it is completely healed. You may want to avoid sharing utensils or cosmetics with your friend, or having any physical contact with others. You should also be extra careful around those who have a weakened immune system (i.e. babies, pregnant women, cancer patients).
There is no cure for HSV-1. However, the good news is that symptoms of cold sores usually clear up on their own after around 10 days. Here are some tips recommended by the dermatologist to help manage your symptoms at home:
Antiviral medications are available in oral or topical form: aciclovir, famciclovir, valaciclovir. Do head over to your pharmacy or visit your doctor if you would like to know more about these treatments!
Place ice on the cold sore or suck on ice chips to reduce the pain and burning sensation. You can also apply non-prescription gel or ointment containing either benzocaine, lidocaine or benzyl alcohol to help relieve the pain.
Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce the pain.
Avoid food that are salty, spicy, or acidic such as carbonated drinks and citrus fruits to prevent further irritation to site of infection
Placing a clean cold wet towel on your cold sores for 5-10 minutes a few times a day can help reduce the redness and irritation
Petroleum jelly can be applied to the sores and surrounding skin to prevent dry, cracked skin
Image credit: Quartz Clinique
Genital herpes is caused by HSV-2 and mainly transmitted through intimate sexual contact. There is also a link between genital herpes and oral herpes, as oral herpes can spread from the mouth to the genital through oral sex, which is why genital herpes can be due to HSV-1 in some cases. Common symptoms of genital herpes are itching or pain around the genital area, followed by formation of small red bumps or tiny white blisters which will later rupture and ooze or bleed. After 2 to 4 weeks, scabs will form over the skin as the ulcer heals. You may also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes in your groin during an initial outbreak. Similar to cold sores, some people may not have any visible symptoms after being infected, but they can still be contagious even without any visible sores. If you suspect yourself having symptoms of genital herpes, a herpes blood test can be taken to determine if you have herpes infection.
There is no cure for HSV-2. Your doctor will usually prescribe a 7-10 day course of oral antiviral medication such as acyclovir, famciclovir or valacyclovir to control the recurrence, clear up the sores, and suppress the virus to prevent transmission to sexual partners.
To prevent transmission of the virus,
Try not to touch your sores or fluid from the blisters, as you may transfer herpes to the other parts of your body like your eyes.
Quickly wash your hands thoroughly and maintain good hygiene to avoid spreading the infection.
Practicing safe sex by avoiding multiple partners, using a condom and avoiding alcohol or drugs that can impair your judgement can help reduce the risk of transmission.
Medically reviewed by Nur Ariffin, MBBS UniSZA
WHO. Herpes Simplex Virus. Accessed 8 July 2022. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus#:~:text=An%20estimated%203.7%20billion%20people,that%20can%20recur%20over%20time.
NHS. Cold Sores. Accessed 8 July 2022. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cold-sores/
Healthline. When Does a Cold Sore Stop Being Contagious?. Accessed 8 July 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/when-does-a-cold-sore-stop-being-contagious#transmission
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Cold Sores: Tips for managing. Accessed 8 July 2022. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/cold-sores-self-care
MyHealth Kementerian Kesihatan Malaysia. Genital Herpes. Accessed 8 July 2022. http://www.myhealth.gov.my/en/genital-herpes/
CDC. STD Facts- Genital Herpes. Accessed 8 July 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
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