Herpes infection

How to get infected with the different herpes viruses?

A young man who has contracted herpes gets blisters on his lip

Everybody knows the lip herpes – but how to get infected with the different forms of herpes? It is assumed that 80 to 90 percent of Germans are infected with a herpes virus. ZAVA explains what herpes viruses are, how infection with these viruses occurs and what types of herpes infections there are.

What are herpes viruses?

About 170 different herpes viruses are known, of which only some can infect humans. It involves viruses that carry genetic material inside them, so-called DNA viruses. Herpes viruses are among the largest known viruses. In their outer envelope are proteins that are responsible for various properties of the viruses, for example, the ability to adhere to human cells.

With which herpes viruses people can become infected?

Four types of herpes viruses are of importance for humans. The Herpes simplex viruses (HSV) are the trigger of lip and genital herpes. The Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) causes chickenpox after infection and the herpes zoster (shingles). Cytomegaloviruses (CMV) are also herpes viruses and are considered to be the cause of inclusion body disease (cytomegalovirus). The fourth herpes virus with great importance for humans is the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which after infection can trigger the so-called Pfeiffersche glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis).

  • Herpes simplex viruses, triggered by lip and genital herpes
  • Varicella zoster viruses, triggered by chickenpox, shingles
  • Human cytomegaloviruses, triggered by inclusion body disease
  • Epstein-Barr viruses, triggered by Pfeiffersches glandular fever

What is the course of infection with herpes simplex viruses??

Herpes simplex viruses (HSV) are divided into two groups: HSV-1 and HSV-2. The herpes simplex virus 1 is considered to be the trigger of cold sore. The virus enters the body and attacks nerve cells. It remains there without multiplying. Only when a person’s immune system is weakened, for example by great stress or another illness, does the virus begin to multiply. Most often there are blisters in the area of the lips, known as cold sores, or in the direction of the nose, known as nasal herpes.

This Reactivation occurs some time after the herpes infection. In many patients, the highly infectious blisters heal by themselves after some time and the virus becomes inactive again. If you want to speed up the healing process or if the blisters heal only slowly or not at all, you can use home remedies or antiviral creams and tablets (for example, aciclovir) to help. In rare cases, it can cause inflammation of the brain (herpes encephalitis) or the cornea of the eye (herpes corneae), which are very dangerous and must be treated without fail.

HSV-2 is the trigger of Genital herpes. Genital herpes is one of the most common venereal diseases. Similar to cold sores, it is characterized by redness, blistering and severe itching, but these occur in the genital area. Because genital herpes is highly contagious, it is important to treat it before having sexual intercourse again.

Infection with HSV-2 can be dangerous for newborns, who can contract the virus from their mothers. In such cases, especially if the infection manifests itself for the first time, the mother should be treated for the infection before birth or deliver by cesarean section to minimize the risk to the newborn.

Over 90 percent of people carry HSV-1 and/or HSV-2 inactive in the body. It is called a latent infection.

How does the infection with the herpes genus Varizella-Zoster proceed??

Most people become infected in childhood the first time with the varicella-zoster virus. An initial infection leads to the clinical picture of Chickenpox. Characteristic itchy skin blisters appear, which heal after one to two weeks and are highly infectious in the initial stage.

In rare cases, chickenpox can lead to complications, such as infection of the brain, lungs or heart muscle.

The varicella zoster virus, once it enters the body, can persist in the body’s nerve cells without causing infection, as can HSV-1 and HSV-2. Only when the immune system is weakened can they cause the Shingles trigger. It starts with severe burning pain and disturbances in sensitivity in an area of the skin. Skin symptoms such as redness and blistering follow a few days after pain sets in.

If shingles occurs on the face, it can lead to a Infection of the optic nerve and of the eye occur. This so-called "Zoster ophtalmicus" can lead to permanent visual impairment and even blindness and should therefore be treated immediately by a doctor.

What is the course of infection with herpes from the cytomegalovirus genus??

Infections with cytomegaloviruses, a type of herpes, are very common. In people with an intact immune system (so-called "immunocompetents"), however, they do not trigger any diseases or only a mild infection. Only when the immune system is significantly weakened, for example in the case of a tumor or AIDS, can the viruses penetrate and multiply in various parts of the body. Most commonly affects the eyes, lungs, and central nervous system (CNS). The virus can be transmitted by any infected person, even without showing symptoms of the disease.

What is the course of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection??

he first infection with the herpes type EBV leads to the Pfeiffer’s glandular fever, which is also known as infectious mononucleosis or kissing disease. The Infection occurs via droplet infection Or the saliva of a person carrying Epstein-Barr virus in his body. Pfeiffer’s glandular fever is accompanied by high fever, headache and severe pain in the limbs, which occur one to three weeks after infection. The disease can last from a few days to several weeks.

How to protect yourself from contracting herpes?

Herpes viruses are a large group of viruses that can cause many different diseases in humans and remain unnoticed in the body for a long time. The best protection against a herpes infection is your own Immune System. A balanced diet, plenty of exercise in the fresh air, no cigarettes or excessive alcohol consumption help the immune system. And if infection does occur, it can often be treated with antiviral creams and medications.

Michel Wenger is Head of Clinical Business Development for Germany. In addition to his medical degree, he holds an MBA in Strategy and Marketing Consulting from Cambridge Judge Business School.

Last modified: 25 Feb 2019

Whitley, R. J., & Roizman, B. (2001). Herpes simplex virus infections. The Lancet, 357(9267), 1513-1518.

Arvin, A. M. (1996). Varicella-zoster virus. Clinical microbiology reviews, 9(3), 361-381.

Ho, M. (2013). Cytomegalovirus: biology and infection. Springer Science& Business Media.

Jenson, H. B. (2011). Epstein-Barr virus. Pediatrics in Review-Elk Grove, 32(9), 375.

Large, U. (2013). Short Textbook Medical Microbiology and Infectiology. Georg Thieme Publishers.

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