A few H words come to mind when referencing sexual health: HIV, Hepatitis (B and C), and HPV, for a few examples. But today, we’re going to talk about herpes.
After my first blog post, most of the private inquiries I received were in regards to this little virus. Understandably, it’s a bit of a daunting conversation, but here at The ValleyScott Blog, we can all face it together!
What is herpes? Well, you have it. Yes, you do. Don’t bury your head in the sand just yet!
Around 200 million years ago, the virus came to be, and, over several more millions of years, decided it liked mammals–including us humans. In fact, it liked us so much, we now have several options to choose from. Ever had the chickenpox? You have herpes. What about shingles? You’re a herpes carrier. Mono(nucleosis)? Yep–herpes. All of these diseases (and several more) have one thing in common: they are classified under the species Herpesviridae. However, I’m pretty sure you’re not here to learn about Herpesviridae varicellovirus; you want to know about Herpesviridae simplexvirus–better known as HSV (1 and 2).
For some reason, the general population is currently more concerned with HSV1 than HSV2, even though they’re essentially the same. The difference between HSV1 and HSV2 is where they “like” to infect your nervous system. HSV1 prefers the trigeminal ganglia (a cluster of nerves in your face); HSV2 prefers the sacral ganglia (nerves near your crotch). The only way to tell which virus you have to to have to physician do a swab test.
However, both HSV1 and HSV2 can affect either area–HSV1 a little more so. If your partner has never contracted HSV1, that cold sore you had in January can definitely pass on to his or her sexual organs–though that infection will be less severe. Even more frightening–herpes can spread when the host (you) is asymptomatic (i.e., no visible sores) through viral shedding. Those who are recently infected will shed more frequently (between 20-40% of days in an initial 6 month period), and those who have been infected for a longer period of time shed much less (5-20% of days).
The herpes simplex virus. Gosh, it even looks mean.
But do not despair, friends! According to the WHO, 67% of the population under 50 already has HSV1. That number increases exponentially as we get older. Plus, once you have HSV1, whether orally or genitally, you can’t catch it again. So the next time you have a cold sore on your mouth? Instead of getting annoyed, be grateful that your body now has the antibodies to fight off an HSV1 infection from reaching your pubic area, or from causing more outbreaks on those pouty lips.
Your body’s immune system is exceptionally intelligent–it has a virtual photographic memory. As with any disease, it learns to recognize the patterns and causes of potential inflammation, with just one goal–kill. Even more, it can even provide some defense from catching HSV2 (although minimal).
Speaking of which, the more sensitive side to this conversation is exactly that–HSV2. Unfortunately, HSV2 really likes the sacral ganglia, so catching it orally is rare. If you are infected in the pubic area, your initial outbreak will likely be severe and painful–which might be why people are more terrified of this strain. Condoms can be somewhat useful for women–much less so for men–but are not entirely reliable. Moreover, according to the CDC, only about 16% are carriers, so I bet it can feel a little lonely. Yet, hope springs eternal–a daily dose of antiviral therapy (usually Valtrex/valacyclovir 500mg) in conjunction with safely using a condom is extremely effective. Under these conditions, pregnancy (while using a condom without birth control) is more likely to occur than spreading the virus!
Now that you have statistics and information, the next likely question you have is, “How can I avoid getting herpes?” Or if you’re a carrier, “How can I prevent spreading this to my sexual partners?” If you’d like a 100% guarantee that you will never catch or spread the virus, then the answer is to wrap yourself in a bubble and never touch another human being again. Well, your restrictions don’t need to be that severe, but you’d have to maintain absolute celibacy. If an asexual lifestyle is not feasible for you–and it’s definitely not for me–there are some helpful precautions to take:
- Familiarize yourself with symptoms of infection or an outbreak
- Know the status of both yourself and your sexual partners
- Practice safer sex with condoms
- Cover your genitalia during oral sex if you have never contracted the virus
- If you are a carrier, consider daily suppressive therapy
- Avoid any sexual contact during an actual or suspected outbreak
- Take your vitamins (lysine being quite helpful)–every day
- Rest, reduce stress, exercise, and lead an otherwise healthy lifestyle
At the end of the day, herpes is basically chicken pox on your mouth/penis/vagina/anus. It’s embarrassing, but it won’t kill you. Remember, knowledge is power. Most carriers don’t even know they’re infected, so kudos for educating yourself and being responsible! Plus, clinical trials for a remedy via vaccination are ongoing. We can now cure a viral infection like Hepatitis C, which is miraculous; it is my firm opinion that we will find a cure for herpes in our lifetime.
Now, kiss yourself in the mirror the next time you get the chance–I’m sure your immune system (and self-esteem) will appreciate it! And as always, be safe, be healthy, and message me with any questions, or if you’ve found more up to date information to share!