Herpes is an extremely common virus infection able to cause a recurrent skin infection that can appear in its different types as small blisters on the genitals or as cold sores on the mouth. It may also appear on other areas of the body, such as the thighs, buttocks, or anal area. People most often remain totally unaware that they have this infection. It is poorly understood by many people and further sensationalized by the media. It is a nuisance, without doubt. It can be a problem when it recurs very frequently. Medications are now available that can treat symptoms and reduce the frequency of outbreaks. These medications include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. The antiviral medication valacyclovir can also reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to sex partners. It should be used in combination with safer sex. To find out whether medications would be appropriate for you, speak to your doctor.

Herpes can sometimes result in serious complications, but people who have herpes can usually prevent these complications. If you have the right information, herpes can be under your control.

Once herpes has been diagnosed, its recurrence can usually be clearly recognized. Control of your infection comes gradually as your own army of immunity takes over and fights off each recurrence with efficient killing power. With time, the frequency of recurrences tends to diminish.

By taking appropriate precautions, you can reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to your sex partner(s). Inform your partner that you have herpes before you have sex. Condoms can help reduce the risk of passing genital herpes on to your partner. During oral sex, the risk of genital herpes may be reduced by wearing a condom on the penis, or using a condom cut length-wise or a dental dam over the female genital area. Condoms and dental dams do not always provide complete protection from herpes because they do not always cover all affected areas of the skin. The medication valacyclovir can also help reduce the risk of herpes transmission. It should be used in combination with safer sex practices such as condoms and dental dams. People with herpes should avoid sex when there are visible sores, use a condom or dental dam the rest of the time, and check with their doctor to see whether using medication to reduce the risk of transmission would be an appropriate option for them.

The virus may cause a terrible infection in some newborn babies, but this syndrome tends to occur most commonly where the mother is experiencing her first-ever (primary) genital infection. The babies of mothers-to-be with recurrent genital herpes are largely protected from this complication by the mother's own immunity, which is passed on to the child more efficiently than the virus itself. Neonatal herpes is a highly preventable and uncommon disease, and it is almost always under the control of the mother and her physician if she knows she has herpes and discusses the problem.

Stephen Sacks, MD, FRCPC, with revisions by the MediResource clinical team