Herpes is a group of viruses that infect humans. Types of herpes viruses include herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 (HHV-1 and HHV-2 respectively), human herpesvirus type 3 (varicella-zoster virus), human herpesvirus type 4 (including Epstein-Barr virus and lymphocryptovirus), human herpesvirus type 5 (cytomegalovirus), human herpesviruse type 6 (HHV-6, including human B-cell lymphotrophic virus and roseolovirus), human herpesvirus type 7 (HHV-7), and human herpesvirus type 8 (rhadinovirus and Kaposi's sarcoma-associated virus).
Herpes is a contagious infection that spreads when the carrier is producing and releasing ("shedding") virus. Herpes viruses are transmitted from human to human in different ways. With HSV-1, contact and infection can occur directly from another human (such as mouth-to-mouth, hand-to-mouth contact) or through the use of everyday objects that have come in contact with the virus, including razors, towels, dishes, and glasses. Genital herpes or HSV-2 can only be contracted through direct sexual contact (genital-to-genital, mouth-to-genital, or hand-to-genital; not kissing) with an infected partner. Occasionally, oral-genital contact can spread oral herpes to the genitals (and vice versa). Individuals with active herpes lesions on or around their mouths or on their genitals should avoid oral sex. The varicella-zoster (chickenpox) virus spreads through the humidity in the air when inhaled and mainly spreads during the incubation period, which is just before an outbreak of symptoms.
After an initial or primary infection, herpes viruses establish a period called latency, during which the virus is present in the cell bodies of nerves that innervate (attach) to the area of the original viral outbreak (such as genitals, mouth, and lips). At some point this latency ends, and the virus becomes active again. While active, the virus begins to multiply (called shedding), and becomes transmittable again. This shedding may or may not be accompanied by symptoms. During reactivation, virus is produced in the nerve cell and transported outwardly via the nerve to the skin. The ability of herpes virus to become latent and reactive explains the chronic (long-term), recurring nature of a herpes infection.
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