I figured I should probably actually post the rant that this blog was named after. Actual new content will come soon though.
1. EVERYONE HAS HERPES.
“Herpes” refers to a large class of viruses, including those that cause mono (EBV/HHV-4), chicken pox (VZV/HHV-3), and cold sores and genital herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2). If you reach adulthood without contracting ANY of those, you’re a rarity, and even then, you’re probably a carrier of one of the other herpes viruses that cause no visible disease in most healthy people. Having herpes pretty much comes along with being a mammal… they’ve evolved with us so long that most mammalian species have one if not several their own.
TL;DR: we all have herpes and it shouldn’t be a scary word.
2. The majority of adults have HSV-1 or HSV-2. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16926356?dopt=Abstract)
….which is why herpes testing is NOT a part of a standard STD panel. People would freak out if it was, because about 60% of adults are positive for HSV-1, and about 17% for HSV-2, even though most of them would be freaking out about an oral herpes infection that they’ve had since childhood.
Also, HSV-1 is generally considered “oral” herpes, and HSV-2 considered “genital” herpes, but this is a false distinction. Either virus can cause sores at either location, so knowing that you have HSV-2 does not necessarily mean that you contracted it from genital contact. (Having genital sores, on the other hand, does mean that the virus came into contact with your junk).
(If you’ve asked for an STD screening but not SPECIFICALLY for a herpes test, you may have come out “clean” but that just means you don’t have anything they tested for.)
3. Medically, herpes is not a big deal for most people.
I’m not here to tell you that herpes viruses are harmless or that your personal tale of horrifically painful infection is not important. They aren’t harmless, and everyone’s experience counts. But when we look at overall risk factors, you have to take into account all the possible outcomes, not just the worst ones.
So here are the possibilities for herpes infection (excluding the severely immune compromised):
a) Many people contract herpes and seroconvert (start producing antibodies, which are what we test for) for that strain without having ANY signs or symptoms. So you could contract the virus, and never know it unless you are tested for it.
b) Even if you have symptoms during a primary outbreak, it is very likely that you will not have many, if any, future outbreaks. Think about cold sores–many people had them as children, but relatively few go on to have frequent outbreaks as adults.
c) You could have outbreaks frequently (often triggered by illness or stress) for the rest of your life. This is rare, but not ridiculously so–I think most of us have probably encountered one or two people who has cold sores every time they get sick, or during every finals week / crunchtime at work. These people have the misfortune of having immune systems that are slightly less good at keeping herpes viruses down than the rest of us, so they slip up more easily, where as the rest of us would need more severe immune suppression (from certain drugs, HIV, sometimes old age) to have the same amount of reactivation events. Admittedly, this sucks, whether your outbreaks are oral or genital. But it sucks a lot less now because…
4. WE HAVE DRUGS FOR HERPES!!
This is so lucky you guys. We don’t have many good antivirals, but we have them for herpes. If you are one of the unlucky few who has frequent outbreaks, your doctor can put you on them continuously or give you a supply to have on hand, in order to prevent you from dealing with the worst of the symptoms. I know these aren’t a magic bullet–drugs have side effects, not everyone can take them, and not everyone who takes them becomes completely asymptomatic–but they help, and they help a lot.
Also, if you have a partner you are trying to avoid infecting, these drugs can help you too! They reduce rates of shedding the virus, minimizing chances of passing it on. There are, as mentioned in the above post, other ways of preventing passing it on as well–namely, barrier methods. That said…
5. Barrier methods don’t lower the risk of HPV and HSV infections as much as we’d like to think.
HPV and HSV are viruses that infect skin cells. They get shed… in/from infected skin cells. If you have skin-to-skin contact, there is a chance for transmission. Male condoms don’t cover everything, so transmission can still happen at exposed surfaces. Therefore, if you or someone you know contracts herpes, it is completely illogical to assume “unsafe sex” (that is, sex without a standard condom) was to blame. Kissing, oral sex, even manual sex… can all pass along the herpes virus.
A lot of us have herpes, many of us without knowing it. Technically, if you’ve ever had a cold sore, you should be disclosing that to your sexual partners because you can give it to them orally through kissing and genitally through oral sex. You can get herpes even if you and your partner are doing everything ‘right’ (using barriers, talking about risk factors) because barriers are not foolproof, because so few people are aware that cold sores = herpes, because it isn’t tested for generally, and because some people have it without ever having symptoms.
But so long as you have a decently functioning immune system, none of this is cause for panic. The worst part of herpes for most people is dealing with the social stigma. And I’m not saying that isn’t important–it totally is. But it’s something we can change.
Herpes viruses have been with us for all of human history, and they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. But we have them pretty well under control, all things considered. They rarely kill us anymore, we have a vaccine for one of them, we have a decent drug. They’re still annoying as fuck sometimes, but the fear we have of them is totally out of proportion to the risk. Could we work on that please?