How Does Herpes Affect the Body?

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Some of those infected with herpes experience debilitating symptoms, while others are completely unaware of their condition. The American Social Health Association reports that around 20% of adults in the United States have genital herpes but, according to The Centers for Disease Control, the majority of these people are unaware of this. Becoming aware of how herpes affects the body can help patients avoid activities that can transmit the virus to lovers, behavior which can increase the appearance and severity of symptoms and even threaten the lives of their unborn children.

Latent Infection

As explained in “The Contagious Diseases Sourcebook,” herpes viruses are latent infections, which means that they start out with relatively intense or severe symptoms when first acquired and then go into a state of hibernation. During the period of hibernation, the herpes virus resides in the infected person’s nervous system at the base of their spine. In some, this state of hibernation seems permanent and these patients never again experience symptoms. For others the state of hibernation is temporary and intermittent. People in this second group may have recurring outbreaks that are not long-lasting but continue to return for years. The CDC notes that as years pass, most people with herpes experience fewer outbreaks.

Primary Infection

Herpes expert and author of the book “The Good News About the Bad News Herpes: Everything You Need to Know” Terri Warren, RN, NP states that a wide range of symptoms is possible during a primary genital herpes infection, including no apparent sign of illness or problem at all. When they do occur, Warren says possible symptoms include discomfort when urinating, vaginal discharge, blisters that itch, hurt, or may break open, swollen glands, head and muscle aches, elevated temperature and other flulike symptoms.

Recurrent Outbreaks

Recurrent outbreaks may include any of the symptoms that are possible during a primary episode, although such symptoms tend to be less severe during recurrences. The American Social Health Association warns that recurrent outbreaks are more likely when herpes sufferers are stressed, sick, sleep deprived and suffering from poor nutrition.

Sexual Transmission

In “Sexually Transmitted Diseases: A Physician Tells you What You Need to Know,” Lisa Marr, MD writes that herpes comes out of hibernation when the virus travels along the path of an infected nerve. There may be no noticeable symptoms when this happens. Marr reports that when this occurs, any area of skin served by the nerve cell becomes capable of transmitting the virus through contact with another person’s skin.


Warren states that 25% to 33% of pregnant adults have herpes, but nearly 90% aren’t aware of this fact. Warren notes that it is extremely rare for a baby to contract herpes from his mother while he is in the womb, but that some babies do acquire herpes from their mothers during delivery. These babies become quite ill and sometimes die. Such transmissions happen when a mother’s herpes is out of hibernation and her baby touches an area of the mother’s skin that is served by one of her infected nerve cells.