What Is Genital Herpes?
Teenagers represent the fastest-growing group of people with genital herpes. This may occur because, even though the disease is so common, there are many myths about how it spreads and who can get it. The fact is that anyone who is sexually active is at risk. Whether you have had a number of sexual relationships or just “fooled around” with one person, all it takes is one contact with the herpes virus to contract the disease for life.
Caused by a Virus
Viruses are the smallest living things in the world. They are so small, in fact, that even two million of them lined up in a row would measure less than a half inch (about 1.3 centimeters). The “host cells” of larger organisms, such as animals and people, provide the food and energy that viruses need to survive.
Viruses also use host cells for another important function—reproduction. On their own, viruses are not able to multiply. But they can use structures within a host cell to produce more viruses. When an infected cell bursts open, it can release hundreds or even thousands of virus particles. And what do all these particles do? They look for other cells to infect.
The Herpes Virus
Viruses cause each of the eight different kinds of herpes. These include diseases such as mononucleosis (“mono”) and cytomegalovirus (CMV). One virus even causes shingles, a disease that’s related to chicken pox. These aren’t STDs, however. The kind of herpes that is caused by the herpes simplex virus (sometimes shortened to “HSV”), however, can be passed through sexual activity.
Herpes simplex actually refers to two different viruses: herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2). The fact that there are two different herpes simplex viruses causes a lot of confusion. The structure of the two viruses is extremely similar—only complicated tests can tell them apart. Still, people view the two viruses very differently.
The other kind of herpes, HSV-2, is passed through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. This is the kind that’s typically called genital herpes. In general, HSV-1 affects the mouth and HSV-2 affects the genitals, but people can get HSV-1 on their genitals and HSV-2 in their mouth. Since HSV-2 is passed through sexual contact, people are more likely to attach a stigma to the disease. This means that people may assume that someone with genital herpes has poor morals, or that he or she is “easy” or has had many sexual partners. But that is not necessarily the case. The truth is that anybody who has any type of sex can get genital herpes. Even condoms are not 100-percent effective in stopping the spread of the disease.
Is There a Cure?
The good news is that genital herpes isn’t fatal. And it doesn’t automatically get worse over time. The bad news is that genital herpes can’t be cured. Once you’re infected, you have the disease for the rest of your life. The virus lives in your body’s nerve endings. This is a place where the immune system is unable to detect and fight the virus. Every once in a while, the virus is reactivated—it “wakes up,” travels through the nerve pathways in your body, and causes an outbreak. That may be how herpes got its name. The word “herpes” is Greek for “to creep.”