Genital Herpes Simplex Virus

The herpes simplex virus comes in two common forms: HSV 1 and 2. The two are very similar: they share fifty percent of their DNA. Both types lie dormant in the body’s nerve cells, and neither type has a cure. Each virus can cause identical herpes symptoms. HSV 1 is associated with oral sores, while HSV 2 more commonly causes genital sores.

In spite of their many similarities, HSV 1 (also called “cold sores”) is socially acceptable, while genital herpes is considered a “bad” disease, and a consequence of sexual activity. In actual fact, the line between the two is much thinner than most people think.

Areas of Preference and Herpes Symptoms

One of the clearest differences between the two viruses is the areas in which they prefer to lie dormant. HSV 1 prefers to hide in the trigeminal ganglia, a nerve cluster located close to the ear. HSV 2 prefers the sacral ganglia located at the base of the spine.

However, an area of preference is just that: preference. Both viruses are quite capable of entering the body through the other’s preferred route, should the opportunity present itself. HSV 2 can cause cold sores in the mouth just as HSV 1 does, and HSV 1, while thought by most people to just cause cold sores, can also cause genital sores.

Location, in part, determines the type of symptoms that present during an outbreak. Cold sores appear if the virus is located in the trigeminal ganglia, while genital sores occur if the virus hides in the spinal nerves.

Social Judgments

People react to the two herpes types differently because of their preferred body locations and method of transmission. No one considers it a problem that kissing often spreads oral herpes. Because HSV 2 is usually spread by sexual contact, people consider it a dirty disease. Society puts no shame on spreading oral sores, even though HSV 1 is, if anything, a more prevalent disease than HSV 2. Genital herpes is considered to be something you get because, supposedly, your actions warrant it.

One in five people are infected with HSV 2: far too many to dismiss the disease as a “punishment” for sexual acts. Yet the popular notion that oral herpes is benign and that genital herpes is somehow bad or dirty persists. It’s unfair, but the stigma is so pervasive that almost everyone who contracts genital herpes has to deal with it.

Close Relatives: Chicken Pox and Shingles

HSV 2 may have a bad name socially, but it’s only one of the many diseases in the herpesvirus family. Chicken pox and shingles, both caused by the herpes zoster virus, are closely related. After the initial chicken pox infection of childhood, the virus may lie dormant for years in the body’s nerve cells. When the virus reactivates, shingles result. The cycle is similar to that of both oral and genital herpes, only over a longer period of time.

Resources (nd). Frequently asked questions about genital herpes. Retrieved August 26, 2002, from