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Of the more than 100 known types of the herpes virus, only eight affect humans. Two of these are herpes simplex viruses (HSV-1 and -2), which can cause genital herpes, and the other six are human herpesviruses (HHV) types 3 through 8, which can cause skin, immune, and other issues.
Herpes Simplex Viruses
Herpes simplex virus type 1 typically causes oral herpes, and HSV-2 causes most genital herpes. Both viruses are lifelong infections with no cure, but prescription antiviral medications can prevent outbreaks and reduce symptoms. Some people who have herpes experience repeated outbreaks, while others never know they have it.
Herpes simplex virus type 1 is highly contagious and very common. It can spread as a result of close contact with people already living with HSV, even if they aren’t showing any symptoms. Many people become infected as children.
Typically, people living with HSV-1 don’t develop symptoms. However, the virus might cause oral herpes (also known as cold sores) to form on and around the mouth, including the lips, gums, tongue, roof, inner cheeks, and even on the face. While cold sores can be painful and annoying, they typically go away on their own within about two weeks. HSV-1 can also spread to the genital area through oral sex. Genital herpes caused by HSV-1 is usually mild and does not recur frequently.
Although herpes simplex virus type 2 is also widespread, it’s not as common as HSV-1. HSV-2 is transmitted through genital-to-genital contact with an infected person. As with HSV-1, the virus can spread even if the affected individual isn’t showing signs of infection.
Many people with HSV-2 don’t know they have it because they don’t experience any symptoms. When an outbreak occurs, itchy or painful sores develop around the area of the body where the virus was transmitted. They can appear on the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, anus, butt, or inside thighs. These sores typically take a week or so to heal.
Similar to the herpes simplex viruses, human herpesviruses stay in infected individuals’ bodies for life with no cure. They might remain dormant or can flare up occasionally. These viruses are extremely common, and many people who are infected never know it.
HHV-3: Varicella-zoster virus (VZV)
You probably know VZV better as chickenpox. This highly contagious virus causes itchy rashes that develop into fluid-filled blisters to appear on the chest, back, and face, before spreading all over the body. People who have never had chickenpox or received the VZV vaccine are most at risk of getting it when they have close contact with an infected individual.
Products such as calamine lotion and oatmeal baths can help relieve itching until symptoms go away, typically within a week. Medical providers might prescribe antiviral medications to people at risk of skin infection or serious illness.
HHV-4: Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)
Nine out of 10 people get EBV at some point in their lives, many without knowing it. This is the virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, or “mono.” Symptoms include fatigue, fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and an enlarged spleen. The virus spreads through body fluids and shared objects, such as eating utensils, that infected individuals have recently used. While there’s no treatment for EBV, fluids, rest, and pain or fever medications can help relieve the symptoms.
HHV-5: Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
More than half of all adults have been infected with CMV by the time they’re 40. Most healthy individuals never know they have the virus. Those who do get sick might have symptoms such as fever, swollen glands, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, low appetite, and weight loss. People with weak immune systems can have more serious health issues affecting the lungs, eyes, esophagus, stomach, or liver. Babies born with CMV have delayed development and lifelong health issues, such as hearing and vision loss.
You can get cytomegalovirus if you come in contact with infected body fluids.
HHV-6 and HHV-7
These two types of herpesvirus are closely related and can cause similar signs.
Human herpesvirus-6 is an extremely common virus that spreads through an infected person’s saliva. In babies, it can cause fever, diarrhea, and a rash called roseola, while healthy adults carrying the virus might never show any symptoms. HHV-6 poses the most risk for people with weak immune systems, such as those who are HIV-positive or receiving organ transplants.
Human herpesvirus-7 is less common and usually less severe than HHV-6. It also spreads through saliva but very rarely causes symptoms. Researchers still have a lot to learn about these herpes strains compared to many of the others.
HHV-8: Kaposi’s Sarcoma Herpesvirus
This relatively new virus spreads through body fluids and can cause cancerous tumors called sarcomas to form on infected individuals’ skin, lymph nodes, mucous membranes, and other organs. People with weak immune systems are most at risk. While there’s no cure for the virus, medical providers might treat the tumors with radiation therapy, surgery, or chemotherapy.
How to Prevent Herpes
Because most herpes viruses don’t cause any symptoms initially, it can be difficult to prevent their spread. You can, however, reduce your chances of becoming infected by avoiding contact with people’s body fluids — particularly when someone is having an outbreak or active infection. Prevention tips include:
- Not sharing drinks, food, or eating utensils.
- Not sharing toothbrushes.
- Not kissing someone who’s having an HSV-1 outbreak.
- Avoiding contact with objects that have infants’ saliva on them.
- Using barrier methods such as condoms during sex.
The sole herpes vaccine that exists is only licensed to prevent VZV.