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(Almost) Everybody Has Herpes

Camille became inspired to pen this article when she noticed the misinformed comments about Usher's alleged transmission of herpes to others

Now that I have your attention, I'll clarify: If you are sexually active, chances are you've encountered someone with it. If you've had chickenpox, you have a form of it. If you have shingles, you've got a form of it as well. If you've ever had a "cold sore," you definitely have it. Lots of people have it, including R&B singer Usher who allegedly infected a woman with genital herpes and paid her $1.1 million in damages. (Yes, in some states you can sue for STD transmission.)

So, let's talk about it.

What is "it"?

Though herpes most commonly refers to HSV 1 (the virus that causes "cold sores") and HSV 2 (the virus that causes genital sores), it broadly encompasses a few other viruses, such as Varicella Zoster (aka Chickenpox) and Herpes Zoster (aka Shingles).

Oral (HSV 1) and Genital Herpes (HSV 2)

Infection rates (US) are as follows:

  • 25% of women (1 in 4) have genital herpes
  • 20% of men (1 in 5) have genital herpes
  • 60%-90% of people have oral herpes

Both oral and genital herpes can cause blisters on mucous membranes (mouth and nose) and genital areas (anus, vulva, and penis). Sometimes, the viruses cause nerve pain or flu-like symptoms (fever, muscle aches). However, some people with herpes never show symptoms; the virus can lie dormant in the body for years.

Varicella Zoster aka Chickenpox

Chickenpox was commonly seen in children, causing an itchy rash that turned into fluid-filled blisters. Picking or scratching the blisters would result in scarring, so calamine lotion and oatmeal baths were encouraged to ease itching. Luckily, a vaccine was developed and became available in 1995 (too late for me, unfortunately). According to the CDC, "each year, more than 3.5 million cases of varicella, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths are prevented by varicella vaccination in the United States."

Herpes Zoster aka Shingles

Shingles is actually caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. It's most common in people over the age of 50 and presents as a rash that blisters (similar to chickenpox). Interestingly, shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus a person may have experienced decades earlier. Shingles is spread when an uninfected person comes in direct contact with the rash while in its blister phase. A person who has had chickenpox will develop shingles, but a person who has not will develop chickenpox.

Do YOU Have Genital or Oral Herpes?

Many physicians won't actually give patients a blood test for oral or genital herpes. Generally, you have to assert that the test is medically necessary as it is NOT part of a standard STD panel. Most people think they've been "tested for everything," when the truth is, most people have NEVER been tested for herpes 1 and 2. Further, many people with herpes 1 (upwards of 80%) or 2 (about 25% of the population) don't know they have it because they show no symptoms.

The first time I attempted to have my physician test me, he resisted, saying "If you have it, you'll have to notify your partners." Wait, isn't that the point? I had to push him to order the test (and had to push my OBGYN to test me years later...sigh). Here are actual physician responses when HSV tests were requested by friends:

  • "I'll add on the herpes antibody test. Just know that it lacks very much clinical meaning. It could mean you've been exposed to herpes and are cured, you've been exposed and have it hibernating but it's not contagious, or you've been exposed and it's hibernating and you're contagious even though you're asymptomatic. And it could be falsely positive or falsely negative." - Doctor #1
  • "I actually think we should first discuss the HSV testing before you have the tests--there is limited utility to testing." - Doctor #2

Symptoms, though sometimes mild, may include:

  • Blisters on the mouth or genitals
  • Bumps that may look like ingrown hairs or pimples
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands, especially during the first outbreak
  • Nerve pain

If you have any of these symptoms and/or have engaged in sexual activity (protected or unprotected) with someone known to have HSV, you should implore your doctor to add HSV 1 and 2 to your STD panel, or pay out of pocket to be tested at an independent lab, such as STD Test Express. If you've ever been sexually active (protected - herpes can be transmitted even if you use a condom - or unprotected) and have never been tested, it's time to learn your status.

Herpes is Always on People's Minds


Cures, Treatments, and Vaccinations

Researchers are currently working on vaccines for HSV 1 and 2. It is difficult to develop a cure or vaccine for some of the following reasons:

  • So many people are infected with herpes - particularly HSV 1 - that it is nearly impossible to find people on which to test potential vaccines.
  • The word "herpes" comes from the Greek word "ἕρπης", which means "creeping" or "latent". The virus "hides" in the sensory and autonomic ganglia of the nervous system and is nearly impossible to "catch" and kill.

Herpes symptoms - oral or genital - can be controlled with suppressive therapy. We've all heard of Valtrex, but any number of medications of the same family can be used to prevent herpes outbreaks and transmission.

Herpes IS Treatable, But...

Genital herpes can cause serious complications, such as:

  • Increased risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, and a potentially deadly infection (from mother to infant) called neonatal herpes (oral herpes can spread to infants, too).
  • Increased risk of contracting HIV and other STDs.

Chickenpox can also be dangerous:

  • Contracting chickenpox as an adult can be fatal.
  • Childhood infections can recur as shingles in late adulthood.

Besides causing extreme pain, shingles can lead to:

  • Pneumonia
  • Hearing problems
  • Blindness
  • Brain inflammation (encephalitis)
  • Death


Herpes is Whatevs - Jezebel.com

STD Facts - CDC.gov

The Overblown Stigma of Herpes - TheAtlantic.com

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you get the shingles vaccination while you have a herpes outbreak?

Answer: This would be a question to ask a medical professional, which I am, unfortunately, not. However, with other vaccinations (the flu shot comes to mind), it is generally recommended that you be in good health when it's administered. It stands to reason the shingles vaccine would be the same. All resources I've seen say that herpes outbreaks strike when people are sick or stressed, so if there's "disorder" in your body (evidenced by an outbreak), I'd recommend waiting until you're well before you introduce a vaccine into your system.

Question: What will stop the itching from shingles?

Answer: Similar to chickenpox, an oatmeal or cornstarch bath can help relieve itching. Take note to use cool or lukewarm bathwater only. Additionally, you may consider applying a cool, moist compress to any blisters. Over the counter lotions and ointments containing capsaicin can also help. Lastly, good old-fashioned calamine lotion may also help. Good luck with your symptoms - I hope you find relief!


chuck williams on October 03, 2017:

I read have everything on these pages but it never discusses a cure for gential herpes. Is there one or a treatment?

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on July 26, 2017:

Interesting article. I cringe every time I see someone kiss a baby or small child on the mouth.

When I reached a certain age, my doctor insisted on vaccinating me against shingles. He said that "everyone" had the potential to have a shingles outbreak. I had a natural resistance (wish I could say "immunity") to chicken pox. Although I had a bad case of measles as a child, both my siblings had chicken pox and mumps, and I never got either from them. When my oldest son was in kindergarten, he came home with chicken pox. A couple of weeks later, I was scratching a scab on my arm and my mother identified it as chicken pox. I wasn't sick nor did I have more than a couple of bumps on my arm, which did leave scars. After that, I did notice that I sometimes got a blister on my mouth when I was unwell. I was more than glad to get the vaccine because a friend of mine had shingles and it wasn't pretty.