Genital herpes? It’s not what you think.
It is misunderstood. But having it is normal.
We help people to get the facts straight.
This is what other ‘herpes’ sites don’t tell you:
(For the related condition, herpes zoster, please go to the Shingles Support Society page.)
- Genital herpes is caused by a herpes simplex virus (type 1 or type 2) – nearly everyone (70%) will catch at least one type, sooner or later.
- Most don’t know they have it:1 in 5 will have no symptoms;3 in 5 will have mild symptoms so are unlikely to be diagnosed;1 in 5 will have obvious symptoms and will be diagnosed.
- These viruses are generally unimportant and do not affect future health or fertility.
- The word ‘incurable’ is used to make it seem important when it isn’t.
- Some people get recurrences – we can advise on how these can be reduced and stopped.
- It’s not the only infection that stays with us – chickenpox, glandular fever and many other infections also hide in the body. Nobody makes a fuss about them.
Other web sites exaggerate the worst cases and tell you herpes is serious. Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to worry about it. Join the HVA to get lots of information and get it in proportion. Professor George Kinghorn, a Sexual Health consultant in Sheffield, says: “What I am suggesting to you is that to be infected with a herpes simplex virus is a state of normality. We tend to make this into a big deal instead of to say that to be infected with herpes virus is something that happens to all adults, some with symptoms and some of us without.” Read more.
Important: If you have not been diagnosed, do not jump to conclusions! Find out what you have by going to a Sexual Health (Genitourinary Medicine) Clinic. There is one at most general hospitals or search here. We cannot diagnose what might be affecting you by email or on the telephone helpline.
The more you know, the less you worry
There are eight human herpes viruses. They cause different infections. Also, every animal species that has been investigated has its own herpes virus: cat, carp, elephant, horse… What these viruses all have in common is the ability to hide in the body without causing symptoms, and then reappear later. They are also generally ‘self-limiting’ which means they get better without treatment. The human herpes virus family includes:
1. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (cold sores and whitlows on fingers and hands, also half new cases of genital herpes)
2. Herpes simplex virus type 2 (genital sores, also sometimes cold sores and whitlows)
The other viruses cause quite different illnesses. These are:
3. Varicella-zoster virus (also called herpes varicella/chickenpox and herpes zoster/shingles)
4. Epstein Barr virus (often abbreviated to EBV)
5. Cytomegalovirus (often shown as CMV)
6. Human herpes virus 6 (HHV6)
7. Human herpes virus 7 (HHV7)
8. Human herpes virus 8 (HHV8 or it can be called KSHV – see below)
1 – Herpes simplex virus type 1 (short version – see also cold sores):
How common? By age 15 around 25% of UK population, by age 30 around 50%.
How is it caught? By direct skin contact with the affected part, but only if the virus is present in the skin at the time of contact.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? 4 or 5 days is usual, but it could be as soon as 2 days or as long as two weeks. Some people may get their first skin symptoms months or years after catching the virus.
What does it cause? Often nothing; at its most obvious it causes a flu-like illness followed by blisters or ulcers on the affected skin. If it recurs, there are likely to be fewer blisters.
2. Herpes simplex virus type 2 (short version – see also our frequently asked questions):
How common? Around 25% of the sexually active UK population. Over the whole country between 3% and 10%. The rates are much higher in other countries.
How is it caught? By direct skin contact with the affected part, when the virus is active.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? 4 or 5 days is usual, but it could be as soon as 2 days or as long as two weeks – or even longer.
What does it cause? Often nothing, at its most obvious it causes a flu-like illness followed by blisters or ulcers on the affected skin. If it recurs, there are likely to be fewer blisters.
3. Varicella-zoster virus (short version – see also our shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia page):
How common? Over 90% of UK population by adulthood. In tropical countries the rates are much lower.
How is it caught? Chickenpox is caught like flu: virus floats in the air, from the breath of an infected person.
When it returns it is called shingles. No one can catch shingles, but if you have not had chickenpox and you have skin contact with shingles, you can catch chickenpox.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? About 4 – 6 days is usual, skin lesions show up 10 – 14 days after infection, but it could be as soon as 4 days or as long as 21 days.
What does it cause? A flu-like illness followed by blisters over the body. If it recurs, as shingles, the blisters will be a restricted area, often around the ribs. Older people may develop post-herpetic neuralgia, a pain the nerves that may be severe and may last for months or year. See our pages on how this is treated.
4. Epstein Barr virus (EBV, also called glandular fever, kissing disease, mononucleosis, mono):
How common? Very common indeed: for example, a study of new students at a UK university found that 75% carried the virus.
How is it caught? Saliva – hence ‘kissing disease’.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? It is estimated that it takes 33-49 days to show up after infection – but this is not confirmed.
What does it cause? In babies and children, the symptoms are often so mild that they are not noticed. In teenagers and adults it causes a sore throat, fever, swollen glands, aching joints and it may cause fatigue which can last weeks or sometimes months. If it recurs, it will cause the same symptoms but they will not be as strong and will not last as long. People on drugs following organ transplants may suffer from ill-health caused by this virus. If a news report features ‘herpes’ and ‘cancer’, it is usually about EBV as this very occasionally causes Hodgkin’s lymphoma or nasopharyngeal cancer. These cancers are most likely to occur in children with malaria in tropical countries and in adults in China.
5. Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
How common? Half the population has CMV by a young age, with higher rates of infection in poorer areas.
How is it caught? The virus is present in saliva, breast milk and other secretions.
What does it cause? In adults, it is usually caught with no symptoms at all. Sometimes it causes the same symptoms as a mild glandular fever (see above). This virus can be a problem if a woman catches it (first time infection) during her pregnancy, her baby could have congenital CMV. In the UK, it is estimated that one to two babies in every 200 will be born with congenital CMV. Of these, about 13% will have problems when they are born and around another 14% will develop problems later on. Problems that congenital CMV can cause include hearing loss and learning difficulties.
6. Human herpes virus 6 (roseola infantum/exanthem subitum) which was first indentified in 1986.
How common? By the age of 2, almost all babies have caught it.
How is it caught? Saliva, and, in older people, possibly semen and other secretions (unlike herpes simplex which is not found in bodily fluids).
How long before it appears (incubation period)? 5 to 15 days.
What does it cause? There are two types 6A and 6B. Type 6A has not been shown to cause any disease. Type 6B causes roseola in babies between 6 months and 1 year old. It is usually a mild infection, which clears without treatment. Symptoms include a fever lasting for a few days, swollen glands and normally a mild rash which appears after the fever goes. Occasionally children will have a swollen liver. Is is a major cause of fever induced seizures in babies. Since it is usually caught in childhood, adults are rarely affected by it. If they do it is a more serious illness than in babies. HHV-6B has rarely been associated with a variety of viral illnesses, including a glandular fever-like illness and infection of the brain or lungs.
7. Human herpes virus 7
First identified in 1990.
How common? By the age of 3, almost all children have HHV-7.
How is it caught? Saliva, and, in older people, possibly semen and other secretions.
What does it cause? Sometimes it may cause a mild childhood rash childhood rash similar to the one caused by Humanherpes virus 6.
8. Human herpes virus 8
Also called Kaposi’s sarcoma herpes virus or KSHV, it which was first identified in 1995.
How common? This virus is quite common in some parts of the world. In Europe and the USA it is not very common – fewer than 10% have it. However, a survey in Lusaka, Zambia, found that 39% carried antibodies to this virus.
How is it caught? In Western countries it may be transmitted during sex. However in countries where it is most common, it would seem to be caught through saliva during childhood.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? It can take as long as 40 years for the symptoms to appear.
What does it cause? This virus features in stories about ‘herpes’ and ‘cancer’ as it has been found to be a cause of Kaposi’s sarcoma – a skin cancer sometimes found in people with AIDS.
This page was written under the Information Standard rules. It was issued on 19/12/2014 and will be reviewed no later than 19/12/2017. Full references for the statements made can be sent on request.
The Information Standard states: The HVA shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of the HVA. Disclaimer: note that the blog and other personal experience stories are excluded from the scope of IS certification.