Herpes Esophagitis: Symptoms, Treatment Options and Prevention

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You may be aware that some cold sores on the lips or in the mouth are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This virus can also affect the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines esophagitis as the general term for any irritation, swelling or inflammation of the esophagus. There are a number of germs that can infect the esophagus, one of which is HSV, which can cause herpes esophagitis. If you have difficulty swallowing or pain in the throat, your dental professional can determine if you have contracted herpes esophagitis and what should be done for treatment.

Types of HSV

There are two types of the herpes virus. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the virus that results in cold sores inside the mouth. Approximately 90 percent of adults worldwide test positively for HSV-1, even if they've never shown symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is because HSV can remain dormant until an illness or other condition triggers the sores. Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is predominantly associated with sores on the genital area. Both types of the virus are contagious and can affect the mouth and the genitals. It's important to avoid sharing utensils, kissing or engaging in sexual contact during an outbreak of HSV to prevent the spread of the virus.

Symptoms of Herpes Esophagitis

According to a case report in Case Reports in Infectious Diseases, herpes esophagitis rarely affects healthy patients with functioning immune systems. Usually, the infection targets individuals with a suppressed immune system, such as those with HIV, those who have undergone an organ transplant or those taking drugs that affect their immune system. The infection also tends to affect men more frequently than women.

According to the Case Reports in Infectious Diseases article, the following symptoms may appear in a patient with herpetic esophagitis:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Sores in the back of the throat or esophagus
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • General discomfort

A dental or medical professional will likely diagnose the issue through endoscopy, a procedure that allows them to look down your esophagus. They will visually examine the sores in the area and may take tissue samples to test. Testing the samples for virus strains will confirm whether or not HSV is the cause of the infection. Another common cause of esophagitis, especially in patients without HSV, is the fungus Candida albicans, which is known to cause oral thrush.

Treatment and Prevention

The Case Reports in Infectious Diseases article explains that the infection may resolve on its own over the course of several weeks. However, a medical professional may prescribe medication to help clear the infection. The three main antiviral medications used are acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir, according to the NIH. Your medical professional may also recommend pain medication and that you eat a soft diet while the infection clears.

While the Cleveland Clinic notes there is no cure for herpes, it's important to take measures to prevent the virus from spreading. If you have a weakened immune system, it is especially important to steer clear of possible sources of infection. The Mayo Clinic recommends practicing proper hygiene, such as washing your hands with warm water and soap, to reduce your chances of contracting the virus. Avoid skin-to-skin contact and sharing items that touch the mouth with someone who is experiencing an HSV outbreak.

If you should contract the virus, contact your dentist or doctor so that you can get started on a treatment path to reduce the severity of the symptoms and speed up the healing of the outbreak. But rest assured that the HSV virus affects many people across the world, and in otherwise healthy patients, it rarely results in complications such as herpes esophagitis.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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