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Herpes Complications

Herpes carries with it various complications.

Corneal blindness is a serious herpes complication that may occur when the virus spreads to the eyes. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Corneal blindness is a serious herpes complication that may occur when the virus spreads to the eyes.

Herpes Complications

Herpes is not a particularly harmful disease, but herpes complications can be dangerous, especially for newborns or people with weak immune systems. The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes both oral and genital herpes, which may appear as sores in the affected area. HSV-1 most often affects the mouth area in children, but by age 18, as many as 90 percent of these people have developed antibodies protecting them from further outbreaks, according to the National Institutes of Health. Although most people with HSV-2 do not have symptoms or even know they have the virus, an outbreak causes ulcers to appear in the genital area for a week or longer. An HSV-2 infection can survive in the body indefinitely; some people experience outbreaks for as long as 40 years, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Genital herpes is generally spread through sexual activity or other skin-to-skin contact with an infected area. Oral herpes is also spread through direct contact with contagious areas of the skin through kissing and oral sex. HSV usually dies quickly outside the body and, thus, is not easily transmitted through contact with objects like towels or toilets. Herpes is most often spread when symptoms are present, but may be transmitted even with no visible symptoms.

HSV does not generally cause complications in healthy adults besides the recurring sores. It can be more serious in pregnant women, or when the virus affects the brain, nervous system, skin or eyes.

Herpes Complications in Pregnant Women

Pregnant women infected with herpes are at a higher risk for miscarriage, retarded fetal growth and premature labor, as well as the risk of transmitting HSV to the newborn infant. However, complications occur in fewer than four of every 1,000 births to infected pregnant women, according to the New York Times. Women with active herpes lesions at the time of birth are generally encouraged to have Caesarean sections to avoid infecting their infants. This decreases the risk that a newborn will be infected, but does not eliminate the possibility entirely. Some doctors also recommend that infected pregnant women take antiviral medications during pregnancy to reduce the probable need for a Caesarean section.

Herpes infections in newborns can be dangerous and even fatal, especially if undiagnosed and untreated. HSV can affect babies in a number of ways. It may cause infections of the mucous membranes, skin and eyes. If left untreated, it can lead to death or more severe infections of the nervous system, liver, adrenal glands and lungs. A central nervous system infection caused by herpes can lead to meningitis or encephalitis, which kills many infants and can lead to mental disabilities in those that survive. Fortunately, drugs like acyclovir have improved the outlook for infants infected with HSV.

Brain and Central Nervous System Complications

Herpes may cause encephalitis and meningitis. HSV infections have also been linked to diseases like Alzheimer's, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, myelitis, atypical pain syndromes and neuralgia.

Encephalitis is a rare but dangerous brain disease that kills over 70 percent of all patients left untreated. Prompt acyclovir treatments can improve the chances for survival, but the disease still causes impairment in all survivors. Herpes is responsible for approximately 10 percent of all encephalitis cases.

Herpes may also cause meningitis, a disease that inflames the brain and spinal cord. Herpes meningitis usually clears up within a week, although it can recur. Women are more likely to contract herpes meningitis than men.

Skin, Eye and Mouth Complications

When HSV enters a skin lesion, it can cause eczema herpeticum, a severe and potentially fatal condition. This usually manifests as itchy, watery blisters. If treated, lesions will heal after 2 to 6 weeks, but can be extremely serious if not.

Ocular herpes, or herpes that infects the eye, affects about 50,000 Americans annually. Ocular herpes generally causes short-lived inflammation or sores on the eyelids or outside the cornea. However, it may also cause stromal keratitis, which affects deeper layers of the cornea and can lead to corneal blindness and iridocyclitis, which inflames the iris.

Herpes may also affect the gums and mucous membranes in the mouth, causing painful ulcers in a condition called gingivostomatitis. This condition may lead to herpes of the fingers.

Other Herpes Complications

The presence of HSV increases the risk of contracting or transmitting other sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, especially in patients with weak immune systems. People with herpes who have compromised immune systems are also at risk of acquiring a variety of other potentially life-threatening complications, including pneumonia, liver damage, inflammation of the esophagus and destruction of the adrenal glands.

Herpes can also cause emotional and social damage. Many infected patients feel depression, humiliation, guilt, anger and shame as a result of their condition.

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