This infection is spread from another person through contact with the mouth, eyes, genital secretions, or direct contact with an active lesion.
Herpes simplex is a skin infection with the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of herpes virus, called herpes simplex type 1 and herpes simplex type 2.
Herpes simplex type 1 generally infects the mouth or eyes, and herpes simplex type 2 generally infects the genital area.
After the virus infects the person, whether it shows up on the skin, it targets local sensory nerves and hides (latent) until reactivation (recurrence of herpes infection).
Reactivation can occur after a few weeks or even years when the virus travels to the skin supplied by the nerve and appears as a blister or rash on the skin.
The most common areas affected by herpes simplex are the lips (such as cold sores) and the genital area (such as genital herpes). Genital herpes infection is usually a sexually transmitted disease.
Causes of herpes on the skin
Is herpes simplex hereditary?
No. It is spread through direct contact with an affected area of a person’s skin or mucosa when the virus is active.
When the infection is active on your skin, don’t let that area touch someone else’s skin.
What does herpes simplex feel like, and what does it look like? (Symptoms)
The first infection usually goes unnoticed, as it can only cause a short-term reddening of the skin.
However, sometimes a first infection can make a person feel very unwell with the temperature, swollen lymph glands, and pain and blisters in the mouth, lips, or skin.
The virus can lie dormant in nerve endings for some time, but when it is reactivated, the first symptom is a burning or shooting pain at the affected site, followed by pink bumps and small blisters.
The blisters dry quickly and crust over, and the areas usually heal within a few days. Repeated attacks typically occur in a similar location.
If the herpes simplex virus infects the eye, it causes pain, discharge, and sensitivity to light and can cause scarring.
How is herpes on the skin diagnosed?
Generally, the clinical appearance of skin affected by herpes simplex is sufficient to make a diagnosis.
A nurse or doctor can take a surface swab to confirm the diagnosis. The result usually takes a few days. If you think you may have herpes in the genital area, you must attend your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic.
This is because other sexually transmitted diseases must be excluded.
Can it be cured?
Symptoms clear up in 7-10 days, with or without treatment, although the virus will remain dormant in the body. In most patients, recurrent symptoms are mild and infrequent or do not occur.
For a minority, troublesome recurrences can generally be prevented through oral antiviral medications or the adoption of lifestyle changes.
Conditions that encourage the virus to be more active are:
- Other infections, such as colds or “flu.”
- Tiredness, wear and tear, or stress.
- Sunlight in the affected area.
- An injury to the skin, such as an operation or a scratch, where the virus shows up on the surface.
Treatment of herpes on the skin
Many mild mouth ulcers do not need specific treatment, But the general rule of thumb in treating herpes simplex is that all treatments work best if they start as soon as possible.
It can be challenging to know what happens during a first infection. Still, in future episodes, it is easier to detect the first signs of the virus being activated and thus begin treatment early.
At the beginning of an infection episode, when the skin area is uncomfortable, tingly, or sore, you may need to take a pain reliever. Starting treatment with medicine to counteract the virus can help decrease the severity of the attack and shorten it.
Antiviral treatments (acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir) can be taken as tablets, with few side effects. Follow the correct dosage, as these treatments often need to be taken frequently.
Recurring infections can be treated with long-term antiviral treatment, although it may not completely stop the attacks.
Acyclovir and famciclovir are also available as creams, but they don’t work as well as tablets.
It would be wise to see a doctor if you are unsure of the diagnosis or if the treatments you have tried do not seem to help.
To avoid delays in treating relapses, your doctor may give you an additional course of tablets to keep in reserve and use at the first sign of a flare-up.
Once you have started this, you will need to order another course for the next episode. If the infection involves the eye, it is essential to seek medical advice immediately.
Genital herpes can be transmitted to a baby during delivery, as it goes through the birth passage when there is an active lesion at the time of birth.
Women who have genital herpes should inform their obstetrician during the prenatal period to take steps to protect the baby.
Self-care (What can I do?)
If you have recurring attacks of herpes simplex, you may be able to avoid the things that seem to trigger an attack:
- Avoid getting stressed or exhausted.
- Avoid anything else that you have noticed that seems to trigger an attack.
- Stay healthy and get enough sleep.
- Avoid sunlight on the affected area and tanning beds if you find that they trigger flare-ups.
- Use UV protection.
Also, try to avoid spreading the infection to someone else.
If the infection is active on your skin:
- Don’t let that area touch someone else’s skin.
- Use tissues when washing to dry the area and dispose of them by bagging or burning to prevent others from becoming infected.
- Do not use an ordinary towel.
People at particular risk of developing a severe infection if they contract the virus are:
- People, especially children, with eczema.
- Anyone whose immune system is not working well, either from treatments like steroids or from diseases like AIDS.
Consider using the following skin treatments.
- Sometimes a cool, wet compress helps.
- It may be helpful to keep a moisturizer on your skin, for example, petroleum jelly.
- Wash the area gently; a salt bath or wash can help. Dry well but gently.
- Use an antiviral cream on the surface of the skin.