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Learn about the infamous diseases that the viruses of the Herpesviridae family cause. You’ve probably heard of most of them: chickenpox, shingles, mono, and cold sores. Learn about the viruses such as the herpes simplex, varicella zoster, and Epstein-Barr virus that cause these conditions.

The Herpesviridae Virus Family

Who doesn’t love The Herp? From beautiful skin sores, to amazing rashes that make your skin glow like Christmas tree bulbs, all the way to a kissing disease that lets you miss school for weeks at a time. The viruses of the Herpesviridae family have it all and much more. In fact there is so much to love about this family that we’ll only get to some of the aspects about the viruses, structure, transmission, and diseases associated with the Herpesviridae virus family in this lesson.

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Herpesviridae Structure and Transmission

The viruses in the Herpesviridae family all share some common features. They are large viruses with a linear double-stranded DNA genome. They have an icosahedral capsid, the structure that surrounds the nucleic acids.

Viruses in this family are also enveloped viruses that can exhibit pleomorphism. With respect to viral shapes, pleomorphism describes a virus whose shape or size may alter with every passing generation. This word is derived from pleo-, which means more than one, and morph, which implies a change in shape. Usually, the changes in shape aren’t humongous. For example, a circular virus may become slightly oval in shape or vice versa.Most of the viruses in this family that we will be discussing in this lesson are spread by direct contact or through bodily fluids, namely saliva.

This is really easy to remember if you’ve ever gotten the dreaded kissing disease, which requires direct contact by locking lips and exchanging saliva.

Infectious Mononucleosis and the Epstein-Barr Virus

The kissing disease, more properly known as infectious mononucleosis, or ‘mono’ for short, is a disease caused by the Epstein-Barr Virus that produces flu-like symptoms. The Epstein-Barr Virus is a virus of the Herpesviridae family known for causing infectious mononucleosis and more than one type of cancer.In case you were wondering why mono was called mononucleosis, it’s because there are white blood cells, called monocytes, that increase in response to the Epstein-Barr Virus, or EBV for short. The suffix ‘osis’ in mononucleosis implies an increase in something, in our case, the monocytes.

We’ll get to the cancers associated with the Epstein-Barr Virus in another lesson, as we have a lot more interesting diseases caused by Herpesviridae viruses you’ve probably heard of that we need to cover in this lesson instead.

Cold Sores, Genital Sores, and More

After you recover from your initial bout of mononucleosis, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to deal with infectious mononucleosis ever again. This is in complete contrast to our next member of the Herpesviridae family, herpes simplex virus 1 and herpes simplex virus 2. Herpes simplex virus 1 is a virus responsible for the majority of cold sores and a minority of genital sores, while herpes simplex virus 2 is a virus responsible for the majority of genital sores. Both of these viruses are mainly spread through direct contact of infected areas contaminated with virus particles that are secreted out of the infected tissue.In addition, both of these viruses love the mucous membranes of your body. These are places like your gums and lips as well as certain genital areas.

That’s why if you’ve ever had a cold sore, it’s probably come up right where everyone can see it, either on your lip or right on the edge of it.What’s interesting about these two viruses is that they cause latent infections. This basically means these two viruses lie dormant and only spring into action when it’s to their advantage. The viruses reside in special locations, called ganglions, of the sensory nerves located near the epithelium, or outer-most layer, of the mucous membranes.Once you are immune-compromised due to something like a poor diet, another disease, or because you’re stressing about a test, the herpes simplex virus recognizes that you are weak and uses it to its own advantage. The virus leaves the ganglion, travels to the epithelial area the nerve terminates in, infects the cells located nearby, and replicates and bursts open those epithelial cells. In doing so, it also oozes out of your mucous membranes, all in order to create a nasty sore that they use to exit your body and possibly infect someone else.

Lovely.But it gets better. These two viruses, once you are infected, will never leave you alone because they are able to evade your immune system forever. I’ll briefly explain how this occurs. Imagine that your immune system and a cell in your body are in a club that requires secret handshakes.

In order to recognize one another they have to shake hands a specific way. When a cell becomes infected with a virus it usually changes its handshake technique. This causes the immune system to recognize that this is a person, or cell, that does not belong in this club. Therefore the immune system will kill the virus or the cell infected by it. However, a herpes simplex virus cell forces its cell to keep the correct ‘handshake’, which tricks the immune system into thinking that everything is ok, when it actually isn’t.

In serious and rare cases, some forms of herpes virus can cause infections of the eye and deadly infections of the central nervous system.Just remember, love is temporary, but like diamonds, herpes is forever.

Chickenpox and Shigella

Last, but certainly not least for this lesson, this virus family also contains the varicella zoster virus, or VZV for short. This is a virus of the Herpesviridae family that is responsible for chickenpox and shingles.I highly doubt I have to define chickenpox for you since you’ve probably had it or been vaccinated for it, but just in case you haven’t, chickenpox is a very contagious disease that produces an itchy, blistery, rash most commonly in young children. This virus can spread through direct contact, like after someone scratches themselves then decides to scratch you for good measure, or through the respiratory route, like when someone sneezes.After being infected with VZV, this virus, like our herpes simplex viruses, will go latent.

Later in life, usually at a much older age, immunosuppression might lead to the virus being reactivated, causing what is known as shingles. Shingles is a disease characterized by a very painful and itchy rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus upon its reactivation from latency. Shingles is typically much worse than chickenpox, especially in older adults, because it can actually cause sleep depriving nerve pain long after the rash disappears, something that’s not associated with chickenpox.

Chickenpox is sort of an appropriate name because it brings me to my final interesting point of this lesson. If it’s not a vegetable or a rock, it probably has herpes. In fact, chickens can get a herpes-related disease called Marek’s Disease, which can cause cancer in chickens.

The topic of cancers in humans that are associated with the Herpesviridae viruses will be covered in another lesson.

Lesson Summary

For this lesson, however, recall that viruses in this family exhibit pleomorphism. With respect to viral shapes, pleomorphism describes a virus whose shape or size may alter with every passing generation.

One virus in this family is the Epstein-Barr Virus, which is a virus of the Herpesviridae family known for causing infectious mononucleosis and more than one type of cancer.The kissing disease, more properly known as infectious mononucleosis, or ‘mono’ for short, is a disease caused by the Epstein-Barr Virus that produces flu-like symptoms.Other members of this viral family include herpes simplex virus 1 and herpes simplex virus 2. Herpes simplex virus 1 is a virus responsible for the majority of cold sores and a minority of genital sores, while herpes simplex virus 2 is a virus responsible for the majority of genital sores.

Last, but certainly not least for this lesson, this family contains the varicella zoster virus, or VZV for short. This is a virus of the Herpesviridae family that is responsible for chicken pox and shingles.Chickenpox is a very contagious disease that produces an itchy, blistery, rash most commonly in young children.Later in life, however, usually at much older age, shingles may occur.

This is a disease, characterized by a very painful and itchy rash, that is caused by the varicella zoster virus upon its reactivation from latency.

Learning Outcomes

When the lesson is complete, you should be able to:

  • Name the viruses of the herpesviridae family
  • Detail what the viruses can cause and explain how they can infect people
  • Understand the process of herpes simplex and how it ‘fools’ other cells
  • Recall that shingles can occur years after contraction of chickenpox

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