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Herpes Virus

Updated on March 23, 2012
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Herpes virus is any of several related viruses that cause diseases in humans and animals,

Among these viruses are Herpes zoster, which produces shingles; varicella, which causes chicken pox in children; and herpes simplex. Simplex is responsible for a wide variety of illnesses, including cold sores, fever blisters and other skin eruptions, infections of internal organs, and tumors among lower animals and probably in man.

An outstanding characteristic of herpes viruses is their abilIty to remain latent in the body, often within nerve cells, without causing noticeable symptoms. The virus may enter the latent stage by integrating its genes with those of the host cell. In this way it may escape destruction by antibodies formed against it. After a latency period that may last for years, the virus-possibly triggered by physical or emotional stress- may cause an outbreak of disease. In some cases a single initial infection may cause repeated outbreaks of the disease during the course of the patient's life.

A prime example of the repeating kind of herpes virus is simplex, of which there are two types: 1 and 2. Simplex 1 often attacks the face, eyes, and mouth. Simplex 2 primarily affects the genital organs, causing almost as much suffering as the other venereal diseases, gonorrhea and syphilis. Either type, however, can infect any region of the body.

When a simplex infection first occurs, it appears in the form of blisters, such as fever blisters or cold sores, which form scabs and heal over within 3 to 14 days. In infants who have not yet developed their own antibodies to the virus, the entire skin may break out in a heavy but nonscarring rash. Serious complications, even death, may follow if simplex also attacks the infant's internal organs. There is no generally accepted cure for infections by herpes viruses, although antibiotics are sometimes given to prevent secondary infection of afflicted parts by bacteria.

Herpes viruses are known to cause cancers in several animals. In man, simplex 2 may be the agent of cervical and prostatic tumors. Burkitt's lymphoma of the jaw is probably caused by another herpes virus.

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