Herpes is inarguably one of the most common medical conditions in many parts of the world, especially including the United States. If the statistics are to be believed, as many as over 50 million people are infected with herpes in the US alone. It translates to one in every 5 people in the country being infected with herpes.
These numbers are obviously worrying and disturbing, especially given that the condition isn’t believed to be having a “known” cure. And while it’s not life threatening in most cases, it can definitely turn out to be very challenging to deal with.
The Herpes Viruses
The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes herpes. There are two types of herpes viruses – the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2).
They usually infect the skin and the mucous membranes, but it’s not at all uncommon for them to also attack the other parts of the body. Herpes is believed to be one of the most difficult conditions to deal with, and has been plaguing mankind for a very, very long time.
While the viruses we mentioned above are the two most common herpes viruses causing herpes, there are actually many more of them that result in different medial conditions. In fact, it’s believed that there are as many as 80 more different types of herpes viruses, and they all have something different about them, though they also share some common characteristics.
Coming to the meaning of the term “herpes”, it’s a Greek word that means “to creep”. The reason the herpes viruses have been given this name is because of a common characteristic they share, which is to “creep along” the local nerve pathways. They eventually end up transporting themselves to the nerve clusters, where they may remain inactive for different periods of time.
Coming back to the two main viruses responsible for causing herpes, the HSV-1 and HSV-2, they both, as well as all the other herpes viruses, can attack different people, or even the same individual.
Though the general belief, until very recently, was that the HSV-1 only infects the oral cavity or mouth (known as oral herpes), and the HSV-2 is only responsible for infecting the genital area (genital herpes), apparently, some recent studies have revealed that that both can infect both the areas, as well as even many other parts of the body.
In fact, some statistics have even revealed that it’s the HSV-1 (traditionally considered to be responsible for only oral herpes) that’s responsible for around half of all the cases of genital herpes in developed countries.
Herpes is chronic in nature. In medical terms, chronic refers to long-term. The reason herpes is believed to be chronic is because as there’s no known cure, and it doesn’t go away by itself, it may continue to live in the infected person’s body for their whole life.
Similarly, another important thing to note here is that many who are infected with herpes don’t even experience any symptoms. This is probably one of the biggest reasons that as many as 85% of the people infected with herpes aren’t even aware of it.
On the other hand, some fall prey to recurrent outbreaks right from when they get herpes. This means that they experience outbreaks and symptoms very frequently. However, the symptoms are believed to get less frequent and less severe with time.
Another important thing to know about the herpes virus is that it’s highly contagious. It can be transmitted to other, non-infected people very easily.
This is because even just direct, close contact may lead to spreading of the herpes virus. However, the most common mode of transmission of the herpes virus is believed to be anal, oral and genital sex. Also, when a person gets infected with the herpes virus, it may first stay dormant for a period of time.
As far as the symptoms are concerned, as hinted earlier, they can vary quite a bit from one infected person to another. While some may have very mild symptoms, some others may not experience any symptoms at all. Similarly, some of the common symptoms of herpes can also be easily mistaken for some other medical condition. This is probably why it can get quite challenging to diagnose herpes, and the reason so many infected people aren’t even aware of it.
An Overview of the Transmission Process
For the herpes virus to make its way from an infected person’s body to a non-infected person, the conditions being mentioned below need to apply:
- The herpes virus transmits itself through bodily fluids such as saliva, semen as well as other fluids (such as the one in female genital tract or from the sores caused by the herpes virus)
- The way the virus infected a non-infected person is through skin injuries and mucous membranes (such as the oral and genital area)
The Infection Process
Once the herpes virus makes its way to a non-infected person’s body, the infection process that usually follows is mentioned below.
- It first enters the lower layer of the skin, usually targeting the vulnerable cells
- It then tries to reproduce in the cell nuclei.
- Usually, even when the virus has settled down in the cells, it may not trigger any symptoms
- However, if it manages to destroy the host cells while reproducing, symptoms such as inflammation and blisters or ulcers start showing up. Similarly, they also go away after a varying period of time without leaving any scars.
- It’s also known to move through the nerve cells to the ends of the nerve cells, where it tends to stay in an inactive state, with both the virus and the host cells surviving.
- After an unpredictable period of time, it starts reproducing again. It’s during this time that it’s believed to go through a process known as shedding. During this process, it infects other non-infected people who come in contact with the infected person. However, as shedding may not trigger any symptoms at all a third to half of the time, it may get difficult to prevent the virus from spreading to others.
- Finally, after this process, it again starts triggering new outbreaks and symptoms.