Herpes, also referred to as herpes simplex, is a chronic disease caused due to the infection by herpes simplex virus (HSV). Basically there are two types of herpes - oral herpes and genital herpes. The former causes cold sores and blisters in and around the mouth, whereas the latter affects the genital and buttock areas. Oral herpes is mostly caused by type 1 herpes virus (HSV-1) and genital herpes is due to type 2 herpes virus (HSV-2). Nevertheless, each of these viruses can lead to both types of disease conditions.
Besides the oral and genital areas, the HSV can also infect the fingers and thumbs. This condition is called herpetic whitlow, finger herpes, hand herpes, or digital herpes simplex. In most cases, the terminal phalanx of one or more fingers are affected. Both strains of HSV are virulent for causing this painful condition.
As already mentioned, the areas of infection by type 1 and type 2 viruses may be different. But, the stages of herpes caused by both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are almost the same. Thus, the physical characteristics of oral, genital, and hand herpes are identical. In the initial stages of infection, an individual may experience the warning signs of herpes outbreak (prodromal stage), which if left untreated may lead to noticeable sores and lesions. The typical herpes stages are five or six, based on whether the healing stage is included or not.
Stage # 1: Skin Reddening (Prodrome)
As soon as the herpes virus comes into contact with skin, it causes tingling and slight tightening of the skin. Then the particular skin area becomes red. After a few days (1 - 2 days) of infection, the individual may experience severe itching and/or irritation of the affected area. Some people have reported painful sensation in the area.
Stage # 2: Inflammation and Swelling
Not many people can recognize the prodromal stage, hence prompt diagnosis at this stage is rare. If the early outbreak signs of herpes such as reddening and itching are not treated at the right time, then the area tends to swell and become inflamed. Though swelling of the affected area may be very severe, it is not physically visible in some cases.
Stage # 3: Eruption of Blisters
Shortly, small red bumps emerge at the swelling site, which progress into small fluid-filled blisters. This is the stage, wherein noticeable symptoms of herpes appear for the first time. The blisters may appear clear, whitish, or reddish in color, and they develop in groups or scattered sparsely. Sensitive and painful to touch, the blisters usually remain for 2 days.
Stage # 4: Outbreak of Ulcers
Lasting for only one day, this stage is called the weeping stage. After the blisters break open and ooze fluid, wet ulcers develop in the area. This is the most painful and most contagious stage of herpes infection. Wet ulcers are reddish, similar to fresh cuts, and very sensitive to touch. They appear slightly raised from the surrounding skin areas.
Stage # 5: Scabbing or Crusting
It marks the initial phase of cold sore healing. As the wet ulcers start healing, dry crust are formed, which eventually harden. A new skin develops beneath the crust as the sores heal completely. Lasting for 2 - 3 days, this stage is characterized by increased dryness, pain, and itchiness. Excess dryness may cause skin cracks and bleeding.
Stage # 6: Complete Healing
Within the next few days, the skin crust dries and falls off repeatedly, leaving new skin underneath it. Usually, herpes sores heal without scarring the skin tissue. However, scar may develop if the scabs are peeled before healing. In case of scarring, topical ointments are used to get rid of scars. This last stage of herpes may last for 4 days.
Herpes is a contagious disease and can be transmitted from one infected individual to another through direct skin contact. Hence, genital herpes is categorized under sexually transmitted disease (STD). Moreover, herpes virus can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth. It is estimated that about 80 million Americans are infected with herpes, and one in every five adults has genital herpes.
Symptoms and Treatment
Irrespective of the herpes type, the signs and symptoms of this viral infectious diseases are manifested within 2 - 20 days after the infection in a series of stages. In addition to the symptoms specific to stages, flu-like symptoms such as fever and headache may accompany herpes. The symptoms of herpes can be managed effectively, if diagnosed in the reddening and swelling stages. The treatment of herpes in the prodromal stage also minimizes the chances of recurrent evidences. Herpes treatment is done with antiviral medication and personal care tips. Also, depending upon the disease severity, a patient may require administration of medication for lifelong.
It is to be noted that the progression of herpes is not the same for every afflicted individual. In fact, many people infected with herpes virus do not manifest visible symptoms. Studies reveal that the progression of herpes and recurrences depend on the stress level and immune responses of an individual. Hence, people who tend to have stress may experience frequent recurrences, while those who adopt proper stress management tips do not suffer the same.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.