We are all familiar with the line, “Herpes lasts forever.” There is no cure for infection with a herpes virus, whether it is herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2).
There are antivirals to reduce the length and severity of flare-ups, and continued therapy can suppress the virus, which reduces shedding. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause genital herpes and oral herpes, i.e. cold sores. HSV-1 has a milder initial episode and fewer flareups, whereas HSV-2 can have a more severe initial episode and frequent flareups.1
According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for 2015-2016, HSV-1 prevalence was 48% among 14- to 19-year-olds and HSV-2 prevalence was 12% in the same age group. Overall, age-adjusted HSV-1 prevalence was higher in females (51%) than in males (45%) in persons aged 14-49 years.2
The reality is that most people with HSV-1 or HSV-2 don’t even know they have it, as both tend to be asymptomatic. Therefore, all reported statistics are grossly underrepresenting the prevalence of the disease.
HSV is a common disease. Regardless of symptoms, shedding occurs. Although condoms reduce the risk of spread, using one doesn’t eliminate it because of the possibility of contact beyond the area covered by the condom and the ability of HSV to be passed through oral sex. The only true prevention is abstinence.
Herpes simplex virus is a sexually transmitted infection that is lifelong. Its presence can increase the risk of contracting HIV. If it is contracted in the third trimester of pregnancy or if a breakout occurs during the third trimester, risk of transmitting to the infant can occur, with devastating neurological impact. Despite the seriousness and longevity of the virus, the vast majority of people with the virus have it unknowingly, and live normal healthy lives.
It is just as important that we educate them that, if they contract herpes, it is not end of their ability to have intimate relationships. Debunking the myth that HSV-2 is a worse disease to have than HSV-1 can significantly reduce the psychological burden caused by this disease, and encourage patients to be more honest about their diagnosis. This not only will assist people in seeking medical advice if they have concerns, but it will encourage conversations about HSV, which hopefully will reduce spread of the virus.
Dr. Pearce is a pediatrician in Frankfort, Ill. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at.
1. J Infect Dis. 2014 Feb.