Herpes simplex is a viral disease caused by both Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). Infection with the herpes virus is categorized into one of several distinct disorders based on the site of infection. Oral herpes, the visible symptoms of which are colloquially called cold sores or fever blisters, infects the face and mouth. Oral herpes is the most common form of infection. Genital herpes, known simply as herpes, is the second most common form of herpes.
Herpes viruses cycle between periods of active disease presenting as blisters containing infectious virus particles that last 2-21 days, followed by a remission period. Genital herpes, however, is often asymptomatic, though viral shedding may still occur. After initial infection, the viruses are transported along sensory nerves to the sensory nerve cell bodies, where they become latent and reside life-long. Causes of recurrence are uncertain, though some potential triggers have been identified, including immunosuppressant drugs (see below). The previously latent virus then multiplies new virus particles in the nerve cell and these are transported along the axon of each neuron to the nerve terminals in the skin, where they are released. Over time, episodes of active disease reduce in frequency and severity.
Herpes simplex is most easily transmitted by direct contact with a lesion or the body fluid of an infected individual. Transmission may also occur through skin-to-skin contact during periods of asymptomatic shedding. Barrier protection methods are the most reliable method of preventing transmission of herpes, but they merely reduce rather than eliminate risk. Oral herpes is easily diagnosed if the patient presents with visible sores or ulcers. Early stages of oral facial herpes and genital herpes are harder to diagnose; laboratory testing is usually required.
A cure for herpes has not yet been developed. Once infected, the virus remains in the body for life. Recurrent infections may occur from time to time, especially in times of immune impairment such as HIV and cancer-related immune suppression. However, after several years, some people will become perpetually asymptomatic and will no longer experience outbreaks, though they may still be contagious to others. Treatments with antiviral can reduce viral shedding and alleviate the severity of symptomatic episodes.