HSV-2 is commonly referred to as genital herpes because it usually causes cold sores to erupt around the genitalia. In fact, genital herpes is the No. 1 cause of genital ulcers worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and affects up to 1 in 3 adults (although most who are infected don’t even know it). (5) Both types of herpes viruses are highly contagious, and both can cause cold sores in either area of the body (or sometimes both).
Once a person is infected, there are no symptoms for anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks. This is known as the incubation period and is the time during which the virus multiplies profusely. The first symptoms that are seen are the small fluid-filled blisters known as vesicles. This arises as the virus starts destroying cells at the site and causes intense localized inflammation. These small vesicles or sometimes the larger bullae may either burst resulting in ulcer or heal completely with no scarring. The virus may also travel from the site of infection and “hides” by the sensory dorsal root. Here it remains latent until is it is reactivated.
Genital herpes is passed on by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys. You can get genital herpes even if there are no visible sores or blisters, and once you have the virus, there is no cure. 'Herpes is more likely to be passed on just before, during or straight after an outbreak, as herpes blisters and sores are highly infectious,' says O’Sullivan.
People who have had HSV-1 are less likely to contract HSV-2 than those who have not. Previous exposure to HSV-1 also decreases the severity of an HSV-2 outbreak. Reoccurrence of the virus is common, and the virus can be active yet asymptomatic. These infections are more likely to be contracted since the person isn’t aware the virus is active. Studies have shown that 50 percent of the cases of sexual transmission of the virus occurred during asymptomatic infections.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.