You Probably Have Herpes
The Herpes simplex virus is one of the most successful viruses on the planet.
Image: University of Wisconsin
Every time my girlfriend gets a cold sore (in other words: herpes) she allows me to make up to five herpes jokes. But the biggest joke is probably on me: I probably have herpes as well, even though I never show any outward symptoms. Just like at least two-thirds of humans. The Herpes simplex virus is one of the most successful viruses on the planet, and more than worth your time to read up on.
A couple weeks ago, a virologist took to Reddit for a very compelling AMA on her research about the virus, which sparked my interest. Like many others, I thought that I was immune, simply because I've never had a cold sore. And like many others, I thought wrong.
Several studies found that many people who have never showed any outward symptoms are in fact infected. A large scale study in Canada revealed that 45 percent of women who never had any symptoms were infected with herpes. 45! So before you close this tab thinking "Uhm, sorry, jerk, but I don't have any herpes," I can tell you: Don't be so sure.
Viruses are fascinating creatures. They're not officially deemed to be alive, but somehow they do have a kind of purpose in life. In the words of the Reddit virologist, "They are little bundles of genetic material that only really care about making more little bundles of genetic material—and some of them do it really, really well!"
One of those little bundles of genetic material is herpes. According to some scientists, it had been around for over 100 million years, and has evolved to be able to infect most mammals, some fish, and even bivalves like the Pacific oyster.
The reason the virus is so phenomenally successful is probably its infection mechanism: it has active periods during which it infects other people (or oysters!), but can also remain dormant until it feels like waking up again to disfigure someone's face.
The virus is also "shedding" when it's dormant. In other words: You can infect someone else even though you don't have a nasty lesion on your face. Infection is less probable, but it can happen nonetheless. Taking into account that you probably have herpes already, that doesn't really matter for your everyday life, but during pregnancies it could be dangerous. A prenatal herpes infection can lead to a life-threatening encephalitis. So remember: no cunnilingus during pregnancy. You have herpes.
On Reddit, the virologist explained the mechanism as follows:
1. The virus infects mucosal epithelial (skin) cells and replicates, destroying the cells and causing lesions.
2. New virus enters into the nerve endings nearby and travels to the body of the neuron. Here it will become silent, ever waiting until...
3. The virus reactivates! It will replicate in the neuron, travel back to the nerve ending, and re-infect the same site of the initial infection - and then maybe someone else.
At this point it might be wise to make a distinction between the two most common types of herpes: There's the Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1) and Type 2 (HSV 2). The former is most often responsible for mouth herpes (let's just call it what it is, euphemisms like 'cold sore' are misleading). The latter is the one that normally causes genital herpes. Know your herpes.
It's still unclear why some people show symptoms and others don't, but it seems to be related to the strength of a person's immune system. A weaker immune system allows the virus to "express" more easily. But it could also be the strain. Just like with every other virus, herpes exists in different strains of varying strength. So you could have an amazing immune system but still get cold sores, just because you had the bad luck to pick up a nasty strain.
Unfortunately, there are no cures that can completely purge the body of the virus. The best modern medicine can do for you is kind of restrain it. This is due to the chill-mode. When the virus is not causing a rampage of nasty sores on your face or genitals, it's practically invisible for both the immune system and medicines.
Luckily, there might be hope. Someday. The virologist on Reddit said there are a couple new strategies in progress as we speak, albeit in early stages. A number are focusing on attacking the latent genomes—destroying the virus at its source. Other methods work to disrupt certain processes that are vital for the lifecycle of the virus. But, as stated, all of these treatments are still in very early stages of development.
So, looks like humans be stuck with herpes for a while, with one consolation: We all have it. #noshame.