What is the Herpes Simplex Virus?

wiseGEEK Writer

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) encompasses two viruses that are related and both belong to the herpes virus group, which is much more extensive. Other herpes viruses include those that cause illnesses like chickenpox. Typically, herpes simplex virus conjures up images of either having genital herpes or repeated sores, and causes for these may be HSV II or I.

Both types of herpes simplex virus aren’t curable and don’t ever leave the body.
Both types of herpes simplex virus aren’t curable and don’t ever leave the body.

Some people infected with herpes simplex virus may have both viruses, and others have just one. HSV II is most commonly associated with the recurrent development of blisters or sores on the genitals, while HSV I is most often thought of as causing cold sores. Actually it is possible to get HSV I on the genitals and HSV II on the mouth, since both viruses are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. The more usual presentation is for sores to occur on genitals (HSV II) or on or around the mouth (HSV I).

A person infected with herpes simplex virus may have both viruses or just one.
A person infected with herpes simplex virus may have both viruses or just one.

Both types of herpes simplex virus share a common trait. They aren’t curable and don’t ever leave the body. This means that outbreaks can occur repeatedly and at any time. Some medications, like acyclovir, may help reduce number of outbreaks. Some people also find that things like minimizing stress, getting plenty of rest, and eating a healthy diet are useful to prevent outbreaks. There are people with one or both forms of the HSV who have very few outbreaks, and others suffer from them regularly. In outbreak stage, herpes simplex virus is extremely contagious.

It was thought for many years that HSV was only contagious during the few days leading up to an outbreak, or during an actual outbreak. This is not considered true at present. Apparently, some people may shed the disease at all times, regardless of whether they have an active infection. Again, using medications like acyclovir may help minimize chances of passing this virus onto others, though it does not do so when outbreak is present. It is also wise to take ordinary precautions like using condoms to prevent sexual transmission.

There are many people infected with herpes simplex virus, with the HSV I type occurring more often. Given the high rate of infection, some people may not treat this disease as seriously as they should. It is associated with some complications, including challenges with vaginal birth and possible transmission to children being born. Contracting HSV of either type is well worth preventing because it is an illness that lasts a lifetime, and it has painful and/or uncomfortable symptoms at times, with some possibilities of complications. There is hope that a vaccine will be developed so that people avoid contracting the virus. Initial trials on an HIV II vaccine for women look promising, and it is hoped that other researchers will follow with developing effective vaccines for women and men, for both viruses.

Cold sores are facial lesions caused by a virus, herpes simplex 1.
Cold sores are facial lesions caused by a virus, herpes simplex 1.

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Discussion Comments


@fBoyle-- I don't think that herpes simplex type 1 is usually transmitted during birth. Herpes simplex type 2 may be transmitted to the child during birth if the mother has an active outbreak and if she gives vaginal birth. But doctors usually do c-sections in these situations to prevent the transmission.

Herpes type 1 is very common and I suspect that most of us get it as children when we put all sorts of things in our mouth as toddlers. It's true that the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids like saliva. So if you use someone's utensils, glass or lip balm, you may get it that way. You can also get it by kissing someone who has a cold sore.

Just try to keep your immune system strong by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. When you feel a cold sore coming on, use a cold sore topical cream to help it heal more quickly. Never touch your cold sore because you may spread it and wash your hands frequently.


I experienced a cold sore for the first time recently. I have no idea how I got it though. I'm only fourteen and I don't share personal items with anyone. My mom gets cold sores too though, could she have given it to me during birth?


There are many different types of herpes viruses. For example, herpes zoster causes shingles and it's also in the herpes family. But shingles is a completely different disease. When most people say herpes, they are referring to either herpes simplex type 1 or 2. In fact, only herpes simplex type 2 is usually referred to as herpes. Herpes simplex type 1 is usually just called cold sores.

I actually did not even know that cold sores are caused by herpes simplex type 1 until a few years ago. I don't think that most people are aware of it. Or at least it's not something that's usually mentioned. I've never heard anyone with a cold sore say "oh I have a herpes simplex type 1 blister!" I don't blame them, I sometimes get confused about which type of blister is caused by which herpes type.

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