Herpes is a common, life-long infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and generally transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. The symptoms of herpes can vary greatly, mainly depending on whether a person is experiencing their first episode or a recurrence. Once infected you may have symptoms returning on and off for years.
A commonly recognised symptom is the appearance of small, painful blisters – also called vesicles – on the skin. Herpes can appear on the lips (oral herpes), genitals (genital herpes) or on other parts of the body (non-genital herpes).
The herpes simplex virus belongs to a larger family of viruses that cause chickenpox, shingles and glandular fever.
There are 2 types of herpes simplex virus — herpes type I (HSV-1) and herpes type 2 (HSV-2). Herpes type 1 is the virus that most commonly causes cold sores on the lips or face. While often transmitted during childhood through close physical contact, this infection can be transmitted at any age. It can also be transmitted to the genitals through direct skin-to-skin contact, often via oral sex. Although HSV-1 infection is common, many people with the infection do not experience symptoms.
HSV-2 is responsible for the majority of genital herpes and is commonly transmitted through sexual contact — anyone who is sexually active can get herpes type 2. Genital herpes is thought to be one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in Australia.
The primary difference between the 2 viral types is preference of location. Herpes type 1 is usually located in the trigeminal ganglion, a collection of nerve cells near the ear. From there, it tends to recur on the lips or face. In contrast, herpes type 2 is usually found in the sacral ganglion at the base of the spine. From there, it recurs in or around the genital area.
The 2 types of herpes simplex virus behave somewhat differently depending on whether or not they are residing in their preferred site.
Either viral type can reside in either or both parts of the body and infect oral and/or genital areas.