Why everything you know about herpes is wrong
You could have herpes right now and you probably wouldn’t know it. In fact, more than 87% of people who have herpes have no idea! (1) How could this happen? It has a lot to do with the stigma wrapped around the virus- if nobody talks about it, nobody can recognize it even in their own bodies.
Before you think this probably has nothing to do with you, you should know that an estimated 3.7 billion people in the world have a type of herpes virus.(2) That’s half of the world’s population. Since you have a pretty good chance of being a part of that half and therefore able to spread herpes to somebody else, here’s what you should know about it that nobody else will tell you:
The Real Facts About Herpes You Don’t Know
Herpes, or more accurately, Herpes Simplex Virus, has 8 different strains, but most people only know about the 2 sexually transmitted categories. The other 6 strains are usually related to childhood diseases like chicken pox or roseola.
The first, HSV-1, mainly causes oral herpes (cold sores), but can also cause genital herpes. HSV-1 only needs direct contact to be transmitted from person to person. Many people actually contract HSV-1 during childhood from contact with cold sores or sharing glasses with someone who has a cold sore. HSV-2, otherwise known as genital herpes, is a sexually transmitted infection. Both forms of herpes infections last your entire life, and currently, there are only medications to manage symptoms, not remove the infection (3).
HSV-2, otherwise known as genital herpes, is a sexually transmitted infection. Both forms of herpes infections last your entire life, and currently, there are only medications to manage symptoms, not remove the infection (3).
You Can Be Infected With Genital Herpes from a Cold Sore
Many people assume that cold sores and genital herpes are completely different, but that’s not actually the case. Oral herpes can be transmitted to genitals as genital herpes through skin to skin contact. Transmission is much more likely during an outbreak (ie. when you have a cold sore), but herpes is still infectious even without any symptoms (3).
Usually, people who already have the HSV-1 strain of herpes as an oral infection don’t also get HSV-1 as a genital infection. This does not make them less likely to get an HSV-2 genital infection.
You Can Have Herpes Without Any Symptoms
This brings us to the fact that many people go undiagnosed because they have very limited or even no symptoms at all. It’s common to contract herpes and not have any outbreaks, or have them far and few between. It’s also common to only show mild symptoms which can be confused for something else like a rash or fungal infection (3).
This is one of the biggest reasons most people don’t know they have herpes- it never affects them! And in most cases, having the herpes virus really isn’t a big deal.
For those who do experience outbreaks, here are the symptoms that are associated with oral herpes (HSV-1):
blisters or sores in and around the mouth (can be painful)
itching or burning sensation before cold sore outbreaks
genital infections of HSV-1 can cause blisters or sores around or on genitals, but do not often recur
The symptoms of genital herpes (HSV-2) include:
1 or more genital blisters or ulcers, with multiple recurrences
swollen lymph nodes
tingling sensation in legs before outbreaks
STD Tests Often Won’t Tell You If You Have Herpes
Most standard STD tests don’t include testing herpes, but even herpes tests can draw false negatives. Herpes is tested by taking a sample from a sore, called a herpes viral culture test. Since many infected people are asymptomatic, this type of test can’t be done (without a sore, there is no sample). Even with a sore present, viral culture tests can draw false results (4).
In addition to sampling a viral culture, doctors can use an antigen detection test, a PCR test, or an antibody test. The antigen and PCR tests also rely on there being an active sore to sample, but the antibody test uses a blood sample instead. The latter is usually unable to detect new infections, however, so false negatives are also very common (4).
If you’re on antiviral medications, these can alter the results of your herpes test.
Women and Genital Herpes
According to the World Health Organization, “More women are infected with HSV-2 than men; in 2012 it was estimated that 267 million women and 150 million men were living with the infection. This is because sexual transmission of HSV is more efficient from men to women than from women to men.” (3)
Even during an outbreak, transmitting the virus to someone else isn’t guaranteed to happen. It’s estimated that man have a 10% chance of transmitting HSV-2 to a female partner through unprotected sex, 5% when using a condom, and only 2.5% when also using antiviral medication. Women have a 4% chance of transmitting HSV-2 to a male partner when unprotected, 2% when using a condom, and 1% when also using antivirals.
Pregnant women or women who are planning to become pregnant should talk to their medical providers about managing genital herpes during pregnancy. HSV-2 can pose a higher risk of miscarriage. Additionally, women who contract genital herpes for the first time late in their pregnancy have an elevated risk of neonatal herpes (a very rare occurrence in which newborns are infected during birth). Women who were infected with HSV-2 are unlikely to infect their newborns.
There Are Natural Ways to Fight The Herpes Virus
A research study published in 2000 suggested that propolis, a natural byproduct from honeybees, was more effective at treating outbreaks of sores and ulcers than acyclovir, the commonly prescribed anti-viral. Within 10 days, 24 out of 30 people who applied a propolis ointment had healed, while only 14 out of 30 people using acyclovir healed, and 12 out of 30 people who used no treatment healed. (5)
An older research study published in 1999 suggested that a herb called prunella vulgaris aka the “heal-all” plant, contained anti-herpes properties. Scientists created a mushroom extract using hot water, alcohol, or gel, and applied it to herpes infected cells in vitro. They concluded that it might be able to be used to help stop the spread of herpes virus, but more testing needs to be done on humans. (6)
The Bottom Line
Herpes sounds pretty scary, but when more people work together to bust the stigma around it, the healthier and better informed we can all be. If you think you might have herpes (which, again, is extremely common), talk to your doctor about any next steps you should take to help manage your symptoms and prevent its spread.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.
(1) http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm#ref23. Accessed March 9th, 2017.
(2) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/herpes/en/. Accessed March 9th, 2017.
(3) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs400/en/. Accessed March 9th, 2017.
(4) http://www.webmd.com/genital-herpes/herpes-tests#1. Accessed March 9th, 2017.
(5) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0944711300800148. Accessed March 9th, 2017.