Herpes refers to a group of highly contagious viral diseases caused by herpes simplex viruses (HSV), which affect the skin or the nervous system adversely.

 These include herpes labialis (also known as oral herpes, which leads to cold sores, or fever blisters) and herpes zoster. Cold sores are caused by herpes type 1, HSV-1, which is spread through direct contact such as kissing or, for example, sharing eating utensils with an infected person.

HSV-1 is closely related to herpes type 2 that causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Both oral and genital herpes can cause sores in the facial area or on and around the genitals, and can be transmitted by vaginal, anal and oral sex. HSV can also spread to the eyes, causing a condition called herpes keratitis that can cause blindness.

Once you have it, triggers include fever, menstruation, stress, fatigue and exposure to the sun.

What are its symptoms?

Herpes simplex symptoms include:

  • Blistering sores (in the mouth or on and around the genitals)
  • Pain during urination (genital herpes)
  • Itching
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, tiredness, and lack of appetite
  • Pain, rash and redness in and around one eye, or swelling of the cornea when it comes to herpes keratitis.

Once you’ve been infected, the virus lies dormant in nerve cells in your skin and it’s likely it will keep recurring over time.

How is it diagnosed?

Cold sores clear up on their own after about two weeks but you should see a doctor if the sores persist, they occur frequently, or if the infection spreads to your eyes. Your doctor can usually diagnose cold sores just by looking at them, but he/she may take a lesion sample for laboratory testing. When there are no sores, other medical tests, such as blood tests, can detect the herpes simplex virus.

If you have sores on your genitals, your doctor may also request HSV testing, also known as a herpes culture, to confirm the diagnosis.

What are your treatment options?

There is no cure for the herpes simplex virus. Treatment focuses on getting rid of sores and limiting outbreaks.

The sores usually heal without treatment, but most people use antiviral creams or ointments to relieve the burning, itching, or tingling and speed up healing time.

Cold sore creams and patches are available over the counter from pharmacies. They are only effective, however, if you apply them at the first sign of a blister, when the herpes simplex virus is spreading and replicating. Medication can also be prescribed to treat symptoms.

Warm baths may relieve the pain associated with genital sores. If you have cancer or HIV/AIDS, or you’ve had an organ transplant, seek medical help immediately if you have signs or symptoms of a herpes infection.

Can it be prevented?

Although there is no cure for herpes, you can take steps to prevent spreading it to another person.

  • For HSV-1: Do not share any items that can spread the virus — this includes cups, cutlery, towels, clothing, make-up, or lip balm. Refrain from oral sex, kissing, or any other type of sexual activity, during an outbreak. Wash your hands thoroughly after touching your sores, and apply antiviral creams with cotton swabs to reduce contact.
  • For HSV-2: Avoid any type of sexual activity during an outbreak. If an individual is not experiencing symptoms but has previously been diagnosed with the virus, they should use a condom during intercourse. Women who are pregnant and infected may have to take medicine to prevent the virus from infecting their unborn babies.

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Unprotected sex increases your risk of HIV/AIDS. Clicks offers HIV testing and counselling at our clinics, call 0860 254 257 or book with Clicks Clinics online to make an appointment.

Shop online at Clicks.co.za for condoms

Don't be caught unawares – rather stock up on condoms here so that you can ensure you're practising safe sex at all times.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015