Herpes is a virus that infects the nervous system. Visualize the human nervous system like a tree trunk with it's extensive root system. The tree trunk represents your spinal cord, and the roots represent the nerves that branch out through your body. The herpes virus infects one of the root branches. When this happens it causes irritation, and varying degrees of other signs and symptoms at the site of infection. Typically, the initial infection is the worst. It causes burning, inflammation, little blisters or bumps, and sometimes open sores. Usually this infection last 7-14 days. If open sores get infected with bacteria the sores can last longer.
Now remember that herpes is a virus. This is different than a bacteria. Think of a virus like a tiny organism that has armor, like a old time Knight. This armor is what has made it difficult for the researchers to develop drugs to kill herpes. With this armor for protection, the herpes virus then travels up the root system to the central nervous system, represented by the tree's trunk. Here the virus hibernates until it is reactivated. Then it travels down the same root to the same area that the original infection was located. When this occurs, a repeat infection occurs, but usually are not as bad as the first. Sometimes a person notices when this occurs because they have early itching and burning in the area, but no blisters. Many repeat cases don't get any worse than that, lasting only 3-5 days. However, some do progress to painful blisters that last a slight bit longer. What causes the reactivation of the herpes virus that lives in the spinal cord? We are not exactly sure, however some believe that certain circumstances activate the virus to repeat the infection. Recognized causes include stress, illness, and getting sun burned.
It is thought that herpes became so wide spread because of unrecognized modes of transmission. This means that infected persons were contagious and didn't know it. How does this occur? Again, we are not exactly sure. It is believed that the virus sheds in small but contagious amounts from the nerve root that it originally infected, without showing any outward signs that that nerve root is re-infected. The area of skin in which the nerve root exists is referred to as a dermatome. A dermatome the term that doctors use to refer to areas of skin that a certain nerve supplies. It is possible to infect additional nerve roots, in other areas of the skin, if exposed to an active viral infection.
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