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(Almost) Everybody Has Herpes

Updated on August 12, 2017
Camille Harris profile image

Camille became inspired to pen this article when she noticed the misinformed comments about Usher's alleged transmission of herpes to others

Now that I have your attention, I'll clarify: If you are sexually active, chances are you've encountered someone with it. If you've had chickenpox, you have a form of it. If you have shingles, you've got a form of it as well. If you've ever had a "cold sore," you definitely have it. Lots of people have it, including R&B singer Usher who allegedly infected a woman with genital herpes and paid her $1.1 million in damages. (Yes, in some states you can sue for STD transmission.)

So, let's talk about it.

What is "it"?

Though herpes most commonly refers to HSV 1 (the virus that causes "cold sores") and HSV 2 (the virus that causes genital sores), it broadly encompasses a few other viruses, such as Varicella Zoster (aka Chickenpox) and Herpes Zoster (aka Shingles).

Oral herpes
Oral herpes | Source

Oral (HSV 1) and Genital Herpes (HSV 2)

Infection rates (US) are as follows:

  • 25% of women (1 in 4) have genital herpes
  • 20% of men (1 in 5) have genital herpes
  • 60%-90% of people have oral herpes

Both oral and genital herpes can cause blisters on mucous membranes (mouth and nose) and genital areas (anus, vulva, and penis). Sometimes, the viruses cause nerve pain or flu-like symptoms (fever, muscle aches). However, some people with herpes never show symptoms; the virus can lie dormant in the body for years.

Child with chickenpox
Child with chickenpox | Source

Varicella Zoster aka Chickenpox

Chickenpox was commonly seen in children, causing an itchy rash that turned into fluid-filled blisters. Picking or scratching the blisters would result in scarring, so calamine lotion and oatmeal baths were encouraged to ease itching. Luckily, a vaccine was developed and became available in 1995 (too late for me, unfortunately). According to the CDC, "each year, more than 3.5 million cases of varicella, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths are prevented by varicella vaccination in the United States."

Shingles on chest
Shingles on chest | Source

Herpes Zoster aka Shingles

Shingles is actually caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. It's most common in people over the age of 50 and presents as a rash that blisters (similar to chickenpox). Interestingly, shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus a person may have experienced decades earlier. Shingles is spread when an uninfected person comes in direct contact with the rash while in its blister phase. A person who has had chickenpox will develop shingles, but a person who has not will develop chickenpox.

Do YOU Have Genital or Oral Herpes?

Many physicians won't actually give patients a blood test for oral or genital herpes. Generally, you have to assert that the test is medically necessary as it is NOT part of a standard STD panel. Most people think they've been "tested for everything," when the truth is, most people have NEVER been tested for herpes 1 and 2. Further, many people with herpes 1 (upwards of 80%) or 2 (about 25% of the population) don't know they have it because they show no symptoms.

The first time I attempted to have my physician test me, he resisted, saying "If you have it, you'll have to notify your partners." Wait, isn't that the point? I had to push him to order the test (and had to push my OBGYN to test me years later...sigh). Here are actual physician responses when HSV tests were requested by friends:

  • "I'll add on the herpes antibody test. Just know that it lacks very much clinical meaning. It could mean you've been exposed to herpes and are cured, you've been exposed and have it hibernating but it's not contagious, or you've been exposed and it's hibernating and you're contagious even though you're asymptomatic. And it could be falsely positive or falsely negative." - Doctor #1
  • "I actually think we should first discuss the HSV testing before you have the tests--there is limited utility to testing." - Doctor #2

Symptoms, though sometimes mild, may include:

  • Blisters on the mouth or genitals
  • Bumps that may look like ingrown hairs or pimples
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands, especially during the first outbreak
  • Nerve pain

If you have any of these symptoms and/or have engaged in sexual activity (protected or unprotected) with someone known to have HSV, you should implore your doctor to add HSV 1 and 2 to your STD panel, or pay out of pocket to be tested at an independent lab, such as STD Test Express. If you've ever been sexually active (protected - herpes can be transmitted even if you use a condom - or unprotected) and have never been tested, it's time to learn your status.

Herpes is Always on People's Minds

Source

Why Are You Grouping "Innocent" Cold Sores with "Dirty" Genital Sores?

Herpes is herpes. Just like cancer is cancer, regardless of the location of the body, there are several viruses that correctly fall under the "herpes umbrella". Similarly, all mental illnesses are mental illnesses, despite some being perceived as "bad" and others eliciting sympathy.

Take depression and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Though people suffering from depression often complain about being misunderstood, the stigma of depression is lifting quite a bit and people with it are not pariahs. Individuals suffering from ASPD (aka "sociopaths"), on the other hand, are to be avoided at all costs, or so says society. Both are mental illnesses, but one is clearly looked upon more sympathetically than the other.

Children are often infected with oral herpes by family members who kiss them on or around their mouths. The herpes virus stays with them for life. As adults, they may infect their own children or a romantic partner. Sexually active people are infected with genital herpes during sex with a person they may or may not know has herpes. They may have also used a condom. Why, then, is a person infected with oral herpes considered less "dirty" than someone with genital herpes?

Cures, Treatments, and Vaccinations

Researchers are currently working on vaccines for HSV 1 and 2. It is difficult to develop a cure or vaccine for some of the following reasons:

  • So many people are infected with herpes - particularly HSV 1 - that it is nearly impossible to find people on which to test potential vaccines.
  • The word "herpes" comes from the Greek word "ἕρπης", which means "creeping" or "latent". The virus "hides" in the sensory and autonomic ganglia of the nervous system and is nearly impossible to "catch" and kill.

Herpes symptoms - oral or genital - can be controlled with suppressive therapy. We've all heard of Valtrex, but any number of medications of the same family can be used to prevent herpes outbreaks and transmission.

Herpes IS Treatable, But...

Genital herpes can cause serious complications, such as:

  • Increased risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, and a potentially deadly infection (from mother to infant) called neonatal herpes (oral herpes can spread to infants, too).
  • Increased risk of contracting HIV and other STDs.

Chickenpox can also be dangerous:

  • Contracting chickenpox as an adult can be fatal.
  • Childhood infections can recur as shingles in late adulthood.

Besides causing extreme pain, shingles can lead to:

  • Pneumonia
  • Hearing problems
  • Blindness
  • Brain inflammation (encephalitis)
  • Death

Resources/References

Herpes is Whatevs - Jezebel.com

STD Facts - CDC.gov

The Overblown Stigma of Herpes - TheAtlantic.com

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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 3 weeks ago

      Interesting article. I cringe every time I see someone kiss a baby or small child on the mouth.

      When I reached a certain age, my doctor insisted on vaccinating me against shingles. He said that "everyone" had the potential to have a shingles outbreak. I had a natural resistance (wish I could say "immunity") to chicken pox. Although I had a bad case of measles as a child, both my siblings had chicken pox and mumps, and I never got either from them. When my oldest son was in kindergarten, he came home with chicken pox. A couple of weeks later, I was scratching a scab on my arm and my mother identified it as chicken pox. I wasn't sick nor did I have more than a couple of bumps on my arm, which did leave scars. After that, I did notice that I sometimes got a blister on my mouth when I was unwell. I was more than glad to get the vaccine because a friend of mine had shingles and it wasn't pretty.