The herpes virus, also called herpes simplex, refers to two very similar viruses that infect humans. These viruses reside in the nervous system, meaning that they are nearly impossible to completely eradicate. Herpes simplex virus one (HSV-1) is most commonly associated with outbreaks on the face, called fever blisters or cold sores, while its relative, HSV-2, usually presents as sores in the genital areas. Outbreaks of the herpes virus usually appear as watery blisters in either of these areas, which shortly scab over and eventually dissipate.
Like all viruses, the herpes virus is contagious, but only during a time when the body is "shedding" the virus, such as during a breakout. Transmission of the virus from an infected person usually occurs from contact with either the saliva or the genital secretions of that person. While the presence of sores indicates the possibility of transmitting the virus, it can also happen at other times.
The main difference in the two types of herpes is the location in which they take up residence in the body. HSV-1 usually finds its way to the trigeminal ganglion, a group of nerve cells close to the ear. From here, the virus causes outbreaks on the face or lower lip. HSV-2, on the other hand, usually prefers the sacral ganglion, located near the base of the spine. From that location, it causes outbreaks in the area of the genitals. This is only a generalization, as either virus can reside in either or even both of these locations, which fact most people are not aware of.
Many people who become infected with herpes are never aware of it, due to a lack of any noticeable symptoms. Others may have periodic outbreaks that last for years. The difference here usually arises from differences in the strength of each person's immune response. It has been estimated that as many as two thirds of the people infected with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 do not know that they have it. Any time a person gets the herpes virus, the infection is lifelong.
Herpes outbreaks are generally most frequent in the first year after infection. The frequency of outbreaks typically decreases as the years pass, and these sores are usually the only outward manifestation of the virus. At times, however, the virus can affect people in other ways, including severe symptoms that can lead to death. Serious as these complications are, they are quite rare.