Herpes is a very common condition – more common than most people assume, yet despite that, it is still widely misunderstood. A significant portion of those diagnosed with herpes jump to conclusions thinking that the virus will have a detrimental impact on their lives, changing them completely. However, this is very often far from truth.

In absolute majority of cases, both genital herpes (HSV-2) and cold sores (HSV-1) are much easier to manage than expected. With proper and timely treatment, an outbreak can be limited fairly easily and without too much trouble.

In this article we will discuss herpes, its symptoms, treatments and causes, while paying special attention to management of this viral infections and different ways in which you can limit or even prevent further herpes reactivations.

What’s on this page?

How common is herpes?

As mentioned, herpes is significantly more common than most people assume. While the total number of people affected is impossible to determine, judging by the diagnosed and hence reported cases, around 32.000 new diagnoses are made annually within the United Kingdom alone. In addition to this, we can also conclude that this condition is somewhat more common in women as they account for 62.6% of all reported cases. The most affected age group, similarly to other STIs, encompasses younger people, more specifically, those in their early 20s. Despite this, herpes isn’t exclusive to the younger generation – around 3.000 to 4.000 of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 45 or more.

However, when we take herpes simplex virus type 1 (more commonly known as cold sores) into account, we can assume that the number of people affected by HSV viruses is much larger. This discrepancy is caused by the fact that a significant portion of those affected by cold sores don’t seek medical help for their condition.

What are the symptoms of herpes virus?

The symptoms of herpes are exceptionally easy to recognize and unlike many other STDs, it is hard to mistake it for some other condition. The tell-tale signs include blisters and sores on the site of the infection (in case of genital herpes, it’s on the genitals or around the anus). The blisters usually burst a couple of days after they originally manifested, leaving painful sores behind. In the case of HSV-1, non-genital herpes, the blisters will appear on the lips and around the mouth, with similar development.

However, these most recognizable symptoms are often accompanied by other more subtle ones which can often be missed. These include:

  • General malaise
  • Influenza-like symptoms
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Swelling of the glands
  • Aches and pains in the lower back, legs and groin
  • Painful urination (in cases of genital herpes)

Another characteristic of herpes is the cyclic successions of periods of activity and dormancy. So, all of the mentioned symptoms will, even without treatment, eventually dissipate and the infection will seem to have gone away. However, it is still present in the system, just dormant for the time being. When the symptoms reappear, this occurrence is usually called ‘reactivation’ of the virus. Reactivations can happen either rhythmically or completely randomly, but in either case, their frequency and severity will gradually diminish as the years go by.

Despite this, as of now there is no known way to completely cure herpes and eliminate the virus from the organism entirely. Once contracted, herpes will remain a lifelong condition, but one that can be easily managed and that won’t have any noticeable impact on your life, provided that you take proper medication when needed.

What causes herpes reactivations?

When it comes to transmitting or contracting herpes, there is not much science there. It is basically common knowledge that both genital herpes and cold sores are passed through direct contact with an open sore. Once the characteristic blisters burst, they will remain infectious for a number of days afterwards. But, what causes reactivations?

There is no definitive answer to that question since herpes reactivations can be caused by various factors. In short, all of these are closely related to weakening the immune system. In other words, while virus is dormant, it will still tend to produce symptoms, but as long as your body’s immune system is working properly, this will not happen. However, once body’s natural defences become compromised for whatever reason, the virus becomes increasingly more likely to develop and cause a flare-up of the characteristic symptoms.

However, compromised immune system isn’t always the sole contributing factor – it is more of a common result of many other herpes reactivation triggers. In addition to that, different people may experience herpes reactivations because of exposure to different triggers, including:

  • Other health condition
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Friction from sex or masturbation
  • Exposure to ultraviolet light
  • Tight clothing (especially underwear)
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking

In addition to this, some researches have implied that women might be more susceptible to herpes reactivations at specific points of their menstrual cycle.

Are there any precautions once can take?

Despite the fact that herpes simplex viruses can’t be treated, they can be managed. This includes certain practices which will reduce the likelihood of recurrent outbreak and also measures that will limit the scope and intensity of the symptoms if reactivation does take place.

Naturally, the first thing you should do is try to avoid the common triggers. With already mentioned factors in mind, this will mean changing certain aspects of your lifestyle, including stopping smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, eating healthy, exercising and in general trying to keep your immune system at its best. However, some other factors such as UV light exposure can be much more difficult to avoid.

If you have been exposed to a trigger that has caused herpes reactivations in the past, you can get prepared and start taking antiviral medicine as soon as the first and earliest symptoms appear. Antiviral drugs should be taken, ideally, right at the time of the outbreak. And the medical experts agree that the earlier in an episode of recurrent outbreak you start taking the treatment, the more effective the treatment will be.

How to treat an outbreak in progress

However, starting the treatment on time, at the very moment the outbreak happens is sometimes easier said or done. Sometimes, the symptoms can develop too quickly to react (for example, overnight), while in other cases access to medicine might be limited at the time of the outbreak. So, what should you do if an outbreak is already in progress?

There are certain things you can do to ease the discomfort caused by the reactivation and speed up the healing process. Some most common and most general tips include:

  • Apply an ice pack or ice cubes in a plastic bag to the affected area (avoid direct contact between ice and the skin)
  • Take a cool shower to soothe the blisters
  • Avoid showering too often and pat the affected are dry afterwards
  • Gently bathe the area with warm salt water (one teaspoon of salt per pint of water)
  • Stay hydrated
  • Wear loose and cotton clothing
  • Apply locally-acting over-the-counter anaesthetic cream or painkiller

How to prevent herpes transmission?

Another very stressful aspect of contracting herpes is the possibility that you might spread this viral infection to someone else. There are some measures that can limit the chances of transmission as well as certain precautions you should keep in mind.

It is important to note that genital herpes can be transmitted through close genital contact, even without penetration, so it is best to avoid it altogether if you or your partner have an outbreak.

Some other tips for preventing the transmission of herpes include:

  • Avoid kissing when you or your partner have cold sores around the mouth
  • Avoid oral sex when you or your partner have either mouth or genital sores
  • Avoid any genital or anal contact if you or your partner have genital sores

Barrier contraception plays a crucial role in the prevention of numerous STIs and the same is true for herpes. Be sure to always use protection of this type (male and female condoms and dental dams) and you will significantly reduce the chances of getting infected.

When is it safe to start having sex again following the outbreak?

There is no precise timeframe when herpes is at its most infectious stage. In fact, medical experts argue that this virus is especially contagious not only during a flare-up, but also for some imprecisely defined time period just prior and just after the outbreak. To be safe, medical community agrees, it is best to refrain from any sexual activity for around one week after the symptoms have cleared up.

How to diminish the chances of further recurrences?

As is mentioned, herpes cannot be cured, but the symptoms will become less and less pronounced as the time goes by and the flare-ups will happen less and less often. In a significant number of those affected, herpes reactivations might completely disappear after 18 to 24 months, although for some other cases, it may take much longer than that.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do to speed up the decrease in symptoms’ frequency and severity except to manage your condition in order to ease the discomfort.