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Herpes is the common term for a group of viruses that are a leading cause of viral disease in people. Once you become infected by herpes virus, the infection remains for life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the ones that most often affect people include:
All the herpes viruses can be very contagious. Chicken pox and shingles are highly contagious to those who have never been exposed to chicken pox or the vaccine for it. Just being in the same room with someone with either disease can result in infection. Both are caused by the same virus, so someone with shingles can actual pass on chicken pox to some one who has never been infected. Shingles is actually a recurrence of the chicken pox virus and is not acquired through contact with a person infected with shingles.
The herpes viruses are also fairly common. CDC calls HSV-1-caused cold sores common in early childhood. HSV-2 infects some 45 million people, according to CDC. It's more common in women (about 25 percent of the population) than men (about 20 percent). The infection rate is also higher in African Americans than whites, 46 vs 18 percent. (Read about "Minority Health") HSV-2 is also spreading, with the infection rate up 30 percent in the last 20 years. The highest infection rate growth is in white teenagers (five times higher today than 20 years ago) and young adults ages 20-29 (now twice as likely to have HSV-2). (Read about "Teenage Health Risks")
In addition to spreading the virus to others, the herpes viruses cause problems to their host. CDC says herpes viruses that can attack nerve tissues include herpes varicella-zoster (shingles), Epstein-Barr virus, cytomegalovirus and herpes simplex. These viruses can severely damage sensory nerves, and can cause attacks of sharp pain and peripheral neuropathy. (Read about "Peripheral Neuropathy") HSV, Epstein-Barr and varicella-zoster can also cause encephalitis. (Read about "Encephalitis and Meningitis") CDC says that HSV 1 or 2 makes you more vulnerable to other infectious diseases as well.
When most people talk about herpes, they usually mean the herpes that is caused by HSV 1 or 2. HSV 1 and 2 can cause blisters or sores. It is important to note however, someone can be infected with HSV 1 or 2 and not have symptoms and still be very contagious. The first stage however is usually an outbreak of small painful blisters at the point of exposure. Sometimes there is fever and other flu-like symptoms. The blisters will clear up in two to four weeks and then go into a latent stage. During the latent stage, the virus moves to the nerves near your spine. (Read about "Nervous System") According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the virus starts multiplying there and can then move out via body fluids and make the person contagious even though they have no symptoms. This is called shedding.
Being careful around someone with an active case of herpes caused by HSV 1 or 2 is one important thing. But, because the virus can spread even when there are no symptoms present, it is important to be aware. People who know they have either of the HSV strains need to discuss the issue with their doctor and with others they have close contact with, such as their family. There are precautions that can be taken and everyone should be aware of them.
CDC says there is no treatment that can cure herpes caused by HSV 1 or 2, but antiviral medications can shorten and prevent outbreaks during the period of time the person takes the medication. In addition, daily suppressive therapy for symptomatic herpes can reduce transmission to partners.
Some of the herpes viruses are a particular concern for pregnant women, because they can be passed on to the baby.
A pregnant woman, who knows she has genital herpes due to HSV 1 or 2, needs to let her doctor know. She can pass the infection on to the baby during childbirth. Even if she does not have active sores, she could still be shedding the virus. According to CDC, a first episode of genital herpes during pregnancy causes a greater risk of transmission to the baby. If a woman has active genital herpes at delivery, a cesarean delivery can be performed. (Read about "Childbirth")
A woman who contracts CMV for the first time during pregnancy has about a 30 to 40 percent risk of passing the virus on to her fetus, according to the March of Dimes (MOD). MOD says that if a pregnant woman develops symptoms of CMV, blood tests can confirm a diagnosis. (Read about "Laboratory Testing") Potential symptoms include sore throat, fever, body aches and fatigue. Although most babies are not harmed, even if they contract the infection, MOD says congenital CMV infection can sometimes result in lasting problems, such as mental retardation, learning disabilities, hearing or vision loss usually in the first year or two of life. In fact, according to MOD, congenital CMV infection is a leading cause of hearing loss in children. (Read about "Hearing Loss")
A pregnant woman also needs to take care to avoid being exposed to chicken pox or shingles if she has not had the chicken pox virus. That too, could hurt the baby. (Read about "Healthy Pregnancy")
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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