What is herpes? Symptoms of Simplex virus type 1 and 2, can you die from it, and what is the treatment

Two mothers in England died of an infection caused by the herpes virus 44 days apart in 2018, shortly after giving birth by Caesarean section

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The herpes simplex virus - also known as herpes - is categorized into two types, these being herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

But what are the differences between the two types, what are the symptoms and can you die from the virus?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is herpes?

Infection with herpes simplex virus, more commonly known as herpes, can be due to either HSV-1 or HSV-2.

An estimated 3.7 billion people under age 50 (67%) have HSV-1 infection globally, with an estimated 491 million people aged 15-49 (13%) worldwide having HSV-2 infection.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “HSV-1 is mainly transmitted by oral-to-oral contact to cause infection in or around the mouth (oral herpes), but “can also be transmitted through oral-genital contact to cause infection in or around the genital area ( genital herpes).”

HSV-2 is almost exclusively transmitted through genital-to-genital contact during sex, causing infection in the genital or anal area (genital herpes), explained WHO.

What are the symptoms?

Both oral herpes infections and genital herpes infections are mostly asymptomatic, but they can cause symptoms of painful blisters or ulcers at the site of infection, ranging from mild to severe.

The NHS website explains you should go to a sexual health clinic as soon as possible if you have:

  • small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, anus, thighs or bottom
  • tingling, burning or itching around your genitals
  • pain when you pee
  • in women, vaginal discharge that’s not usual for you

These can be symptoms of genital herpes.

The NHS said: “Go even if you have not had sex for a long time, as blisters can take months or years to appear.”

Although there’s no cure for genital herpes, symptoms can clear up by themselves. If blisters come back - either as an outbreak or a recurrence - treatment from a sexual health clinic can help.

Cold sores are caused by HSV1 and are small blisters that develop on the lips or around the mouth.

They often start with a tingling, itching or burning sensation around your mouth. Small fluid-filled sores then appear, usually on the edges of your lower lip.

Cold sores usually clear up without treatment within seven to 10 days, but creams can be bought from pharmacies to help treat them.

Can you die from herpes?

Deaths caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2 are almost unheard of in healthy people.

However, Abbas Kanani, pharmacist at Chemist Click, said: “Certain situations where you have a weakened immune system, or where the virus travels to the brain, can cause health complications, and even be life threatening.

“This is because the herpes virus can lead to serious problems including inflammation in the brain, or disseminated infection, where the virus spreads to another area of the body, disrupting the functioning of a particular organ.”

Neonatal herpes can also occur when an infant is exposed to HSV-1 or HSV-2 in the genital tract during delivery.

Neonatal herpes is rare, occurring in an estimated 10 out of every 100,000 births globally according to WHO, but it is a serious condition that can lead to lasting neurologic disability or death.

Women who have genital herpes before they become pregnant are at very low risk of transmitting HSV to their infants.

The risk for neonatal herpes is greatest when a mother gets an HSV infection for the first time in late pregnancy, this is in part because “the levels of HSV in the genital tract are highest early in infection,” said WHO.