Herpes simples is a viral disease caused by Herpes simplex viruses; both herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) cause herpes simplex. Infection with the herpes virus is categorized into one of several distinct disorders based on the site of infection. Oral herpes, the visible symptoms of which are colloquially called cold sores, infects the face and mouth. Oral herpes is the most common form of infection. Infection of the genitals, commonly known as herpes, is the second most common form of herpes. Other disorders such as herpetic whitlow, herpes gladiatorum, ocular herpes (keratitis), cerebral herpes infection encephalitis, Mollaret’s meningitis, neonatal herpes, and possibly Bell’s palsy are all caused by herpes simplex viruses.
Herpes viruses cycle between periods of active disease — presenting as blisters containing infectious virus particles — that last 2–21 days, followed by a remission period, during which the sores disappear. Genital herpes, however, is often asymptomatic, though viral shedding may still occur. After initial infection, the viruses move to sensory nerves, where they reside as life — long, latent viruses. Causes of recurrence are uncertain, though some potential triggers have been identified. Over time episodes of active disease reduce in frequency.
Herpes simplex is most easily transmitted by direct contact with a lesion or the body fluid of an infected individual. Transmission may also occur through skin-to-skin contact during periods of asymptomatic shedding. Barrier protection methods are the most reliable, but not failsafe, method of preventing transmission of herpes. Oral herpes is easily diagnosed if the patient presents with visible sores or ulcers. Early stages of orofacial herpes and genital herpes are harder to diagnose; laboratory testing is usually required. Prevalence of HSV infections varies throughout the world. Poor hygiene, overcrowding, lower socioeconomic status, and birth in an undeveloped country have been identified as risk factors associated with increased HSV-1 childhood infection. Additional studies have identified other risk factors for both types of HSV.
There is currently no cure for herpes; no vaccine is currently available to prevent or eliminate herpes, although vaccines of varying effectiveness are currently in phase III trials. Also, treatments are available to reduce viral reproduction and shedding, prevent the virus from entering the skin, and alleviate the severity of symptomatic episodes.
There is currently no cure that can eradicate herpes virus from the body, but antiviral medications can reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of outbreaks. Antiviral drugs also reduce asymptomatic shedding; it is believed asymptomatic HSV-2 viral shedding occurs on 10.8% of days per year in patients not undergoing antiviral treatment, versus 2.9% of days while on antiviral therapy. Non-prescription analgesics can reduce pain and fever during initial outbreaks. Topical anesthetic treatments such as prilocaine, lidocaine or tetracaine can also relieve itching and pain.
Herpes antiviral therapy began in the early 1960s with the experimental use of medication that interfered with viral replication called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) inhibitors. The original use was against normally fatal or disabilitating illness such as adult encephalitis, keratitis, in immunocompromised (transplant) patients, or disseminated herpes zoster. The original compounds used were 5-iodo-2´-deoxyuridine, AKA idoxuridine, IUdR, or(IDU) and 1-β-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine or ara-C, later marketed under the name cytosar or cytorabine. The usage expanded to include topical treatment of herpes simplex, zoster, and varicella. Some trials combined different antivirals with differing results. The introduction of 9-β-D-arabinofuranosyladenine, AKA ara-A or vidarabine, considerably less toxic than Ara-C, in the mid 1970s, heralded the way for the beginning of regular neonatal antiviral treatment. Vidarabine was the first systemically administered antiviral medication with activity against HSV for which therapeutic efficacy outweighed toxicity for the management of life-threatening HSV disease. Intravenous vidarabine was licensed for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1977. Other experimental antivirals of that period included: Heparin, trifluorothymidine (TFT), Ribivarin, interferon, Virazole, and 5-methoxymethyl-2´-deoxyuridine (MMUdR). The introduction of 9-(2-hydroxyethoxymethyl) guanine, AKA acyclovir, in the late 1970s raised antiviral treatment another notch and led to vidarabine vs. acyclovir trials in the late 1980s. The lower toxicity and ease of administration over vidarabine has led to acyclovir becoming the drug of choice for herpes treatment after it was licensed by the FDA in 1998. Another advantage in the treatment of neonatal herpes included greater reductions in mortality and morbidity with increased dosages, something that did not occur when compared with increased dosages of vidarabine. On the other side of the equation, acyclovir seems to inhibit antibody response and newborns on acyclovir antiviral treatment experienced a slower rise in antibody titer than those on vidarabine.
Antiviral medications used against herpes viruses work by interfering with viral replication, effectively slowing the replication rate of the virus and providing a greater opportunity for the immune response to intervene. All drugs in this class depend on the activity of the viral enzyme thymidine kinase to convert the drug sequentially from its prodrug form to monophosphate (with one phosphate group), diphosphate (with two phosphate groups), and finally to the triphosphate (with three phosphate groups) form which interferes with viral DNA replication.
There are several prescription antiviral medications for controlling herpes simplex outbreaks, including aciclovir (Zovirax), valaciclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir), and penciclovir. Aciclovir was the original, and prototypical, member of this drug class; it is now available in generic brands at a greatly reduced cost. Valaciclovir and famciclovir — prodrugs of aciclovir and penciclovir, respectively — have improved solubility in water and better bioavailability when taken orally. Aciclovir is the recommended antiviral for suppressive therapy for use during the last months of pregnancy to prevent transmission of herpes simplex to the neonate in cases of maternal recurrent herpes. The use of valaciclovir and famciclovir, while potentially improving treatment compliance and efficacy, are still undergoing safety evaluation in this context.
Several studies in humans and mice provide evidence that early treatment with famciclovir soon after the first infection with herpes can significantly lower the chance of future outbreaks of herpes. Early use of famciclovir has been shown to reduce the amount of latent virus in the neural ganglia. A review of human subjects treated for five days with famciclovir 250 mg three times daily during their first herpes episode found that only 4.2 percent experienced a recurrence within six months after the first outbreak, a fivefold decrease compared to the 19 percent recurrence in acyclovir-treated patients. Despite these promising results, early famciclovir treatment for herpes in this or similar dosage regimes has yet to find mainstream adoption. As a result, some doctors and patients have opted for off-label use. One suggested regime is famciclovir at 10-20 mg/kg per day for 5-10 days, with treatment to commence as soon as possible after the first herpes infection(not the first symptoms or outbreak), and the most effective time for initiating treatment to be five days or less after the first herpes infection. However, the window of opportunity for this treatment is only a few months after first infection with the virus, following this the potential effect on latency drops to zero.
Antiviral medications are also available as topical creams for treating recurrent outbreaks on the lips, although their effectiveness is disputed. Penciclovir cream has a 7-17 hour longer cellular half-life than aciclovir cream, increasing its effectiveness relative to aciclovir when topically applied.
Docosanol is available as a cream for direct application to the affected area of skin. It prevents HSV from fusing to cell membranes, thus barring the entry of the virus into the skin. Docosanol was approved for use after clinical trials by the FDA in July 2000. Docosanol is marketed by Avanir Pharmaceuticals under the name Abreva. It was the first over-the-counter antiviral drug approved for sale in the United States and Canada. Avanir Pharmaceuticals and GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare were the subject of a U.S. nationwide class-action suit in March, 2007 due to the misleading claim that it cut recovery times in half.
Tromantadine is available as a gel that inhibits the entry and spread of the virus by altering the surface composition of skin cells and inhibiting release of viral genetic material. Zilactin is a topical analgesic barrier treatment, which forms a “shield” at the area of application to prevent a sore from increasing in size, and decrease viral spreading during the healing process.
Lipactin by Novartis is another over-the-counter topical gel which has been clinically shown to reduce sympotms and healing duration of a Herpes Simplex infection.
There is some limited research that has shown that tea tree oil may have topical anti-viral activity, especially with the Herpes virus.