What is herpes simplex?

Herpes Simplex
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Herpes simplex

Herpes simplex is a virus that can cause painful blisters and sores. The virus usually affects the skin and the thin layers of tissue that moisten, lubricate, and protect certain parts of the body (mucous membranes).

The two main types of herpes simplex viruses are type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). Both types of the virus can cause sores on the lips (cold sores) and sores on the genitals (genital herpes). HSV-1 more often causes cold sores. HSV-2 more often causes genital sores. The viruses are transmitted by direct contact, such as touching a sore directly or through sexual contact.

A herpes infection may cause only a single outbreak of sores. But in many cases the person will have recurrent outbreaks. Recurring infections can be triggered by factors such as stress, fatigue, sunlight, or another infection, such as a cold or flu.

Treatment can reduce the number and severity of outbreaks but cannot cure the infection.

Herpes zoster, another form of herpes virus, causes chickenpox and shingles.

What other health problems can be caused by herpes simplex virus?

If the herpes simplex virus (HSV) invades a part of the body other than the genital area, it may cause disease in that part of the body. In general, complications are rare. And they usually occur with the first-time (primary) genital herpes outbreak. Some of these complications include:

  • Meningitis, an infection of the fluid (cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF) and tissues (meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord.
  • Encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. This is usually the result of a viral infection.
  • Inflammation of the lower spinal cord and surrounding nerves. This may result in an inability to urinate, loss of feeling and muscle strength in the legs, and constipation.

Other areas of the body that can be infected with the herpes virus include:

  • The lips (herpes labialis). These outbreaks are often called cold sores or fever blisters. They are usually mild but may be treated with antiviral medicines if they become severe or more frequent.
  • The hands and fingers (herpetic whitlow). Plastic or rubber gloves prevent its spread.
  • The anus (herpes proctitis). Herpes proctitis is often more severe than other types of genital herpes.
  • The eyes (herpes keratitis). Herpes can be transmitted from the mouth or genitals to the eyes. This can cause blindness if it is not treated early. If your eye is very irritated or if you feel pain in your eye, see your doctor as soon as possible.
  • The liver, lungs, and joints. This occurs mostly in people who have impaired immune systems.

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