Healthy Lips for Valentine’s Day

Small fluid-filled blisters typical of a herpes infection are present at the lateral lip.Valentine’s Day has arrived! Whether you embrace this day or cringe at the mere mention of it, we can all agree that romantic relationships play a huge role in our emotional and physical well-being. Just one encounter with an infected partner can affect our lives and health forever. No matter what your relationship status is, everyone can benefit from a little education on sexually transmitted diseases.

The herpes simplex viruses (HSV) encompass two separate but very similar viruses, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Together, these viruses most commonly cause two diseases: cold sores, also known as orolabial herpes, and genital herpes. While HSV-1 is the more frequent cause of orolabial herpes and HSV-2 of genital herpes, both viruses can cause either condition. The viruses are transmitted through direct contact with skin lesions and body fluids containing virus particles, such as saliva, and sexual contact.

Regardless of the area affected, in general, herpes simplex virus appears as one or several small blisters on a red base. In orolabial herpes, these are most commonly on the corners of the mouth or along the borders of the lips. They can also occur in the mouth, for example along the gums. The blisters may be fragile and rupture to form small ulcers and crust. Often there is burning, itching, or tingling accompanying the skin eruptions. These sensations may occur before any changes in the skin appear.

Once a person is infected, the virus stays in the body permanently within nearby nerves. At any time, the virus may reactivate and skin lesions appear. This can occur only a few or many times in an infected person's lifetime. Often, one can be infected with herpes and never have any signs of the disease, with the only evidence of infection being the presence of antibodies to the virus on blood test. For many people, being sick is a common trigger for reactivation of the virus, hence the moniker "cold sores."

The herpes simplex viruses are extremely common, and it is estimated that one-third of children are exposed by the end of childhood, while up to 8 out of every 10 young adults will have positive antibodies (evidence of a past infection).

Any person who has had orolabial herpes can shed virus through saliva at any time. The virus is most concentrated and contagious, however, when an active cold sore is present. The best way to protect yourself from this extremely common infection is to avoid direct contact with cold sores and the saliva of a person with active cold sores, such as through kissing or sharing straws.

Keep yourself safe this Valentine’s Day, and all year long!

Published on 02/14/2011 | Last updated on 10/18/2018