Oral herpes vs. genital herpes, is it the same?

Oral herpes vs. genital herpes, is it the same?

We have all seen an advertisement for some ointment to treat cold sores, those annoying sores that appear, for example, when we had a very high fever due to an infection.

Yet when we start hearing that the herpes virus is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) we may wonder: is it possible to use the same treatment for the mouth and the genitals?

One family, two viruses

The infectious agent that causes cold sores is herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV1, while the cause of genital herpes is herpes simplex virus type 2, or HSV2. Under a microscope, the two viruses might look almost identical, explains Dr. Valinda Riggins in her article for The STI Project, a website specializing in STIs.

However, genetically they only share up to 85% of their genetic material. This means that HSV1 and HSV2 behave in a similar way, but they are two viruses that differed in some way thousands of years ago.

Both viruses infect the mucous membranes of the body, primarily the mouth and genitals, but can also attack the nose, eyes, and ears. Once it has entered the mucosa, the virus resides latently or inactively in the nervous system.

When the virus is reactivated due to physical or emotional stimuli, it replicates and travels through the nerve pathway to the surface of the skin, resulting in a physical outbreak (appearance of lesions), or it can remain on the skin that it flakes off

This is why the two types of herpes can re-emerge and can be transmitted to other people even if there are no visible symptoms at the time, Riggins details.

How are they different?

In terms of clinical manifestations, the two viruses cause identical symptoms. That is, it is not possible to determine, only by physical manifestations such as the severity of the initial outbreak or the appearance of the lesions, whether it is HSV1 or HSV2. So how are they different?

The main difference lies in where the virus lodges to remain dormant. HSV1 usually lies dormant in nerve cells near the base of the neck, with flare-ups often appearing in the mouth or face.

For its part, HSV2 resides in a latent mode in the nerve cells at the base of the spine, so its recurrence manifests itself in the genital area. However, the doctor clarifies, this difference is not absolute, and both viruses can be present in both areas of the body indistinctly.

Now, HSV1 could be the riskier of the two, although it usually comes in a mild form when it shows up in the mouth or on the face. However, if the virus reaches the eyes, it is a potentially serious infection and could even lead to blindness.

Also, in very rare cases, HSV1 travels to the brain and causes herpes encephalitis, a dangerous infection that can even lead to death.

This does not mean that HSV2 is harmless. This type of virus is the one most frequently found in neonatal herpes, that is, it causes a risky (although rare) infection in newborns.

What is certain is that HSV2 rarely spreads far from its home, so its manifestations remain close to the genital area.

Protect yourself from this and other viruses

The herpes virus has no cure and can lead to the consequences that we have already seen. For this reason, it is very important for you to protect yourself as well as possible so as not to get infected, and the most efficient way to do this is to use a condom in all your sexual relations.

It is not enough that your partner “seems” healthy or that there is a promise of fidelity involved, herpes can be present even if that promise has not been broken, due to previous sexual relations of one of the two.

Remember that using a condom is taking care of your own health and showing your partner that you care about their well-being too.

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