How alike are HSV-1 and HSV-2? In this feature, we look at the latest scientific facts about the two types of herpes simplex virus, as well as social attitudes toward oral and genital herpes.
When many people first tell someone they have genital herpes, they start by comparing the infection to oral herpes, or cold sores. How apt is the comparison? In spite of scientific facts, the social stigma and emotional attitudes surrounding genital herpes can make it hard to compare it objectively with an oral infection that most people casually accept. Following the unspoken assumptions of our society, many people still believe there is a "good" herpes virus-HSV- 1, the usual cause of cold sores-and a "bad" herpes virus-HSV-2, the usual cause of genital herpes.
In this feature, we take a look at HSV- 1 and 2 to see how alike and different the two viral types really are. We asked leading researchers how the two compare in terms of severity, recurrences, and transmission rates. We asked how often each occurs outside its usual site of preference, and how each behaves in the genital area. We questioned how much immunity having one type orally or genitally provides against getting the second type.
In addition, we looked at the way our society views oral and genital herpes. What's behind the very different images the two types carry? And what can we do about it? In an interview, counselors at the National Herpes Hotline suggest ways to help replace judgmental social assumptions with a healthy attitude.
Under a microscope, HSV- 1 and 2 are virtually identical, sharing approximately 50% of their DNA. Both types infect the body's mucosal surfaces, usually the mouth or genitals, and then establish latency in the nervous system. For both types, at least two-thirds of infected people have no symptoms, or symptoms too mild to notice. However, both types can recur and spread even when no symptoms are present.