The herpes virus enters the body through breaks in the skin or tiny skin abrasions around the mouth, genitals or anus. These abrasions are generally caused by friction during sex and are often so small they cannot be seen. The virus will then live in nerve cells where it will essentially stay for life. For most of the time the herpes virus won't cause any problems. In fact, a person may not even know they are infected with the virus. However, at certain times, the virus will infect skin cells at the surface, causing an outbreak.
Signs and symptoms of herpes may include: itching or irritation around the anal or genital area; sore genitals that may cause pain and difficulty urinating; skin splits; painful blisters; and open sores (ulcers) in or around the mouth, the genital area or the anus.
Despite how common herpes is, it is often under-recognised because the symptoms may be very mild or non-existent. Most who have the disease are not aware they are infected. For others it causes great discomfort. People with herpes have a higher risk of being infected with AIDS. Pregnant mothers can pass the disease on to their child, in rare cases with serious complications.
There are two types of the herpes simplex virus – HSV1 and HSV2. Oral herpes, commonly known as cold sores, is caused by HSV1. HSV1 is transmitted via oral-to-oral, oral-to-genital, and genital-to-genital contact. HSV2 is transmitted only via genital-to-genital contact. In the past, genital herpes was typically always caused by HSV2. However, more than half of genital infections today are due to HSV1. This is believed to be as a result of the increase in oral sex, particularly among young people. HSV1 remains far more common than HSV2.
The CDC estimates that more than 1 in 5 adults in the USA have genital herpes; however, only about 1 in 10 of these persons is aware of his or her infection. This means that up to 50 million people are carriers of herpes.