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Herpes Simplex (HSV): Transmission, Prevention and Treatment

The herpes simplex virus is the cause of cold sores, genital herpes and some eye and throat infections. HSV can easily spread though person-to-person contact.

Once a person is infected with herpes simplex, the virus remains in the body for life. Herpes simplex is known as the cause of cold sores and genital herpes, but can produce various mild to severe health problems throughout the body.

The herpes simplex virus may affect the eyes, nervous system and respiratory system. There are two types of herpes virus:

  • HSV-1: affecting the mouth, hands, throat and neck
  • HSV-2: affecting the anogenital region

Either type can affect areas in other parts of the body. See: Herpes Simplex (HSV): Symptoms and Types of Infection.

Herpes Simplex (HSV) Transmission

Herpes is especially contagious during periods when the virus is active and sores are present, but can spread even when the infected person shows no symptoms. Transmission of herpes simplex types 1 and 2 occurs through direct skin-to-skin contact.

Genital herpes may also be spread through asymptomatic shedding or viral shedding by an infected person. Herpes symptoms may be mild or absent, and an individual may not know he or she is infected.

The virus infects the skin or mucosa, spreading from one person to another through an open wound or abrasion in the skin. The wound may be very small, even microscopic. The virus can also spread when a person touches a sore and accidentally infects the fingers, eyes or other parts of the body.

Men or women with herpes are at higher risk for contracting Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus (HIV), especially when sores are present.

Prevention of Herpes Simplex (HSV)

Soap and water kills the herpes virus on the skin. Thorough hand-washing can help prevent transmission of HSV if a sore is inadvertently touched.

Use of condoms can significantly reduce the risk of herpes simplex in sexually active people. In couples where one person is infected with genital herpes, the couple can enjoy sex without the other partner becoming infected, either through use of condoms or avoiding sex when the virus is active. While asymptomatic transmission can occur, it’s less common than viral transmission from sores or blisters.

Women who have herpes and want to get pregnant should speak to a doctor. The herpes virus can spread to the unborn child.

Kissing a person with cold sores or open oral sores can transmit the virus. Oral sex increases the risk of HSV. Communication between (or among) sexual partners is important to help stop the spread of herpes.

People with cold sores or other indications of active herpes should not kiss or handle a baby. An infant’s immune system is less developed than that of an adult, and the child can develop serious health complications.

Herpes Vaccine

No herpes vaccine is currently available. One vaccine was developed at Harvard Medical School and tested by Acambis, who named the vaccine ACAM-529. In preliminary studies, the vaccine proved effective in preventing and fighting HSV types 1 and 2.

Acambis sent a letter to shareholders in 2008, indicating that the vaccine was in preclinical trials. Shortly thereafter, Acambis was acquired by Sanofi Pasteur. The fate of the ACAM-529 herpes vaccine remains unknown.

A previously-tested vaccine, Herpevac, underwent trials for eight years as a preventative for HSV-2. The vaccine was tested on over 8,000 people, but showed no positive results.

Treatment of Herpes Simplex (HSV)

Keep the affected region clean and dry during an outbreak. In the case of genital herpes, avoid tight-fitting clothing and underwear. Creams or lotions may irritate the area, and are best avoided.

Take special care to boost immune system health. Eat low-fat foods high in antioxidants. Avoid excess alcohol consumption. Sleep well, get plenty of rest, and drink water to combat dehydration. Dehydration can happen as the body fights viral activity and infection, but is commonly ignored.

Drugs and Medication for Treatment of Herpes Simplex (HSV)

Although there’s no cure for herpes, certain medication can ease the severity of a herpes outbreak and speed healing time. Antiviral and topical medications are available to help treat herpes simplex types 1 and 2.

Antiviral treatments for HSV include:

  • aciclovir (acyclovir),
  • famciclovir
  • penciclovir
  • valaciclovir (valacyclovir)

Topical applications to treat HSV include:

  • docosanol (available over the counter in the United States and Canada)
  • acyclovir
  • penciclovir

Some home remedies reputedly ease symptoms of HSV infection. These include echinacea, aloe vera, eleuthero, L-lysine, zinc and various bee products. The efficacy of alternative medicine for HSV infection is uncertain.

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