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20 September 2001
Herpes - The Hidden Epidemic
by George Atkinson

If you don't have a herpes virus somewhere in your body, consider yourself lucky. You're one of few Americans to escape this pesky bug. The Mayo Clinic reports that 135 million Americans age 12 and older have herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the most common form of the herpes virus. And an astounding 90 percent of the population has HSV-1 by age 70.

You don't have to feel sick or have symptoms to be infected. You can also spread the highly contagious virus without even knowing you have it. Herpes infections can go completely unnoticed or they can be potentially life-threatening, depending on the type of infection.

Cold sores

These common irritations are usually caused by HSV-1, but can also be caused by HSV-2 (which typically causes genital herpes). Treatment includes over-the-counter creams and pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Other prescription medications can speed up recovery. Transmission can be prevented by not kissing anyone and not touching people after you've touched the cold sore.

Genital herpes

This infection is similar to cold sores, but the sores appear in the genital area. It is almost always caused by HSV-2, but can be caused by HSV-1. Having sex with someone who is having an outbreak is the most common way to get infected. Sores do not have to be visible for the person to be contagious. Daily doses of antiviral medications can help speed healing and suppress outbreaks. Use condoms to help prevent transmission, and always avoid sexual contact when you have sores or feel an outbreak coming.

Herpes simplex keratitis

This is an infection of the eye that is caused by touching the eye after coming in contact with a herpes sore. Repeated infections can scar the eye and affect your vision. Topical antiviral medications are usually prescribed for treatment.

Herpetic whitlow

A painful infection of the fingertip, herpetic whitlow is caused by touching herpes sores. Antiviral medications are given to prevent transmission, although they may not shorten the duration of the infection.

Shingles (herpes zoster)

The herpes virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. After you've had chicken pox as a child, the virus can lie dormant in nerve cells near your spinal cord or brain. Aging, illness or stress can reactivate the virus. A band of blisters usually wraps around your trunk and heals within a month. Antiviral medications can help prevent serious complications.

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