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Genital herpes? It's not what you think.

It is misunderstood. It needn't be - having it is normal.

We help people to get it straight.

This is what other 'herpes' sites don't tell you:

   (For the related condition, herpes zoster, please go to the Shingles Support Society web site.)

  1. Genital herpes is caused by a herpes simplex virus (type 1 or type 2) – most people catch at least one type, sooner or later.
  2. Most don't know they have it:
       1 in 5 will have no symptoms;
       3 in 5 will have mild symptoms so are unlikely to be diagnosed;
       1 in 5 will have obvious symptoms and will be diagnosed.
  3. These viruses are relatively harmless and do not affect future health or fertility.
  4. The word 'incurable' is used to make it seem important when it isn’t.
  5. Some people get recurrences – we can advise on how these can be reduced and stopped.
  6. It's not the only infection that stays with us – chickenpox, glandular fever and many other infections also hide in the body. Nobody makes a fuss about them.
Other web sites exaggerate the worst cases and tell you herpes is a disaster. Don't be fooled. You don't have to worry about it. Join the HVA to get lots of information and get it in proportion. Professor George Kinghorn, GU consultant in Sheffield says: "What I am suggesting to you is that to be infected with a herpes simplex virus is a state of normality. We tend to make this into a big deal instead of to say that to be infected with herpes virus is something that happens to all adults, some with symptoms and some of us without." Read Professor Kinghorn's talk here.

Important: If you have not been diagnosed, do not jump to conclusions! Find out what you have by going to a Sexual Health Clinic. There is one at most general hospitals or search here. We cannot diagnose what might be affecting you by email or on the telephone helpline.

Looking for news about David Golding and the trial? Read our news release.

Still have questions? We have answers here.
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The more you know, the less you worry

There are eight human herpesviruses. (Medical texts refer to herpesvirus as one word.) Also, every animal species that has been investigated also has its own herpesvirus: cat, carp, elephant, horse... What these viruses all have in common is the ability to hide in the body without causing symptoms, and then reappear later. The human herpesvirus family includes:

1. herpes simplex virus type 1 (cold sores and whitlows on fingers and hands, also half new cases of genital herpes)
2. herpes simplex virus type 2 (genital sores, also sometimes cold sores and whitlows)

The other viruses cause quite different illnesses. These are:

3. varicella-zoster virus (also called herpes varicella/chickenpox and herpes zoster/shingles)
4. Epstein Barr virus (often abbreviated to EBV)
5. cytomegalovirus (often shown as CMV)
6. human herpesvirus 6 (HHV6)
7. human herpesvirus 7 (HHV7)
8. human herpesvirus 8 (HHV8 or it can be called KSHV - see below)

1 - Herpes simplex virus type 1(short version - see also cold sores ):
How common? By age 15 around 25% of UK population, by age 30 around 50%. The rates are higher in many other countries.
How is it caught? By direct skin contact with the affected part, when the virus is active.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? 4 or 5 days is usual, but it could be as soon as 2 days or as long as two weeks - or even longer.
What does it cause? Often nothing; at its most obvious it causes a flu-like illness followed by blisters or ulcers on the affected skin. If it recurs, there are likely to be fewer blisters.

2. Herpes simplex virus type 2 (short version - see also our Frequently asked questions):
How common? Around 25% of the sexually active UK population. Over the whole country between 3% and 10%. The rates are much higher in other countries.
How is it caught? By direct skin contact with the affected part, when the virus is active.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? 4 or 5 days is usual, but it could be as soon as 2 days or as long as two weeks - or even longer.
What does it cause? Often nothing, at its most obvious it causes a flu-like illness followed by blisters or ulcers on the affected skin. If it recurs, there are likely to be fewer blisters.

3. Varicella-zoster virus (short version - see also our shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia pages):
How common? Almost 100% of UK population by adulthood. In tropical countries the rates are much lower.
How is it caught? Chickenpox is caught like flu: virus floats in the air, from the breath of an infected person.
When it returns it is called shingles. No one can catch shingles, but if you have not had chickenpox and you have skin contact with shingles, you can catch chickenpox.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? Two weeks is usual, but it could be as soon as 7 days or as long as 23 days.
What does it cause? A flu-like illness followed by blisters over the body. If it recurs, as shingles, the blisters will be a restricted area, often around the ribs. Older people may develop post-herpetic neuralgia, a pain the nerves that may be severe and may last for months or year. See our pages on how this is treated.

4. Epstein Barr virus (EBV, also called glandular fever, mononucleosis, mono, kissing disease):
How common? Virtually everybody worldwide.
How is it caught? Saliva.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? It is estimated that it takes 33-49 to show up after infection - but this is not confirmed.
What does it cause? In babies and children, the symptoms are often so mild that they are not noticed. In teenagers and adults it causes a fever, swollen glands, aching joints and it may cause ongoing fatigue. If it recurs, it will cause the same symptoms but they will not be as strong and will not last as long. People on drugs following organ transplants may suffer from ill-health caused by this virus. If a news report features 'herpes' and 'cancer', it is usually about EBV as this very occasionally causes Hodgkin's lymphoma or nasopharyngeal cancer. These cancers are most likely to occur in children with malaria in tropical countries and in adults in China.

5. Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
How common? Half the population has CMV by a young age, with higher rates of infection in poorer areas.
How is it caught? The virus is present in saliva, breast milk and other secretions.
What does it cause? In adults, it is usually caught with no symptoms at all. Sometimes it causes the same symptoms as a mild glandular fever (see above).

6. Human herpesvirus 6 (roseola infantum/exanthem subitum) which was first indentified in 1986
How common? By the age of 2, almost all babies have type 6B virus.
How is it caught? Saliva, and, in older people, possibly semen and other secretions.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? 5 to 15 days.
What does it cause? There are two types 6A and 6B. Type 6A has not been shown to cause any disease. Type 6B causes roseola in babies between 6 months and 1 year old. It is usually a mild infection, which is self-limiting. Symptoms include a fever lasting for a few days, swollen glands and normally a mild rash which appears after the fever goes. Occasionally children will have a swollen liver. Is is a major cause of fever induced seizures in babies. Since it is usually caught in childhood it is rare for adults to get this virus. If they do it is a more serious illness than in babies. HHV-6B has rarely been associated with a variety of viral illnesses, including mononucleosis syndromes, focal encephalitis, and pneumonitis.

7. Human herpesvirus 7:
How common? By the age of 3, almost all children have HHV-7.
How is it caught? Saliva, and, in older people, possibly semen and other secretions.
What does it cause? Sometimes it may cause a mild childhood rash (called exanthem subitum).

8. Human herpesvirus 8 (also called Karposi's sarcoma herpes virus or KSHV) which was first identified in 1995
How common? This virus is quite common in some parts of the world. In Europe and the US it is not very common - under 10% have it. However, a survey in Lusaka, Zambia, found that 39% carried antibodies to this virus.
How is it caught? In Western coutnries it may be transmitted during sex. However in countries where it is most common, it would seem to be caught through saliva during childhood.
How long before it appears (incubation period)? This virus does not cause symptoms right away. It can take as much as 40 years for the symptoms to appear. (In Uganda, 50% of children were found to have this virus before they reached puberty.)
What does it cause? This virus features in stories about 'herpes' and 'cancer' as it has been found to be a cause of Karposi's sarcoma - a skin cancer found in people with AIDS.

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