Symptoms and causes

The herpes simplex virus causes skin and mucous membrane infections, among other things. There are two major types of herpes simplex viruses:

  • type 1, which usually causes the cold sores
  • type 2, which classically gives rise to genital herpes

In principle, both viruses can cause infections all over the body and mucous membranes.

When you are infected with a herpes simplex virus for the first time, it is called a primary infection during which most people do not experience any or only mild symptoms. After the primary infection, the virus is, as it were, dormant (i.e. latent) in the nerve nodes and can flare up again at any time. Often a resurgence or reactivation is provoked by illness, fever, sunlight or stress.

A herpes infection is contagious from person to person, usually through direct contact (e.g. kissing) but it is sometimes transmitted through an object (e.g. a drinking glass). If you get infected by the virus, you carry it for life.

Herpes shows on the skin and mucous membranes as blisters. Often these lesions give burning, stinging, pricking and/or tingling sensations. They can be limited, but sometimes they can be very extensive.

Diagnosis and treatment

The diagnosis is made by the physician based on what she sees, but a skin swab is often also taken to determine the type of virus.

A mild herpes infection in the form of a cold sore can be treated with antiviral creams. For all other herpes infections, we prefer to start an antiviral treatment with tablets. This only makes sense if treatment is started within five days of the first symptoms arising. If a patient suffers frequent bouts, maintenance treatment with antiviral medication can sometimes be given for a period of six months to a year.

Treatment centres and specialisations

Dermatology

Latest publication date: 21/01/2021
Supervising author: Dr Van Autryve Els