Young man with a cold sore

Does Herpes Affect Your Immune System?

Highlights

  • Does herpes affect your immune system? It doesn’t seem to weaken the immune system itself, but it can take advantage of the immune system getting compromised in ways that can put you in danger.
  • Well over half of people worldwide have some form of herpes, and the odds of you getting it rise as you age.
  • Herpes can be managed with well-tested, common antiviral medications.

Does herpes affect your immune system? Not exactly, but it can take advantage of a compromised immune system. Misinformation is as big a risk to your sexual health as any disease, and that applies to common infections like herpes. Here are the facts on herpes and your immune system and what you can do to manage the disease.

Herpes: The Facts

  • The herpes simplex virus, or HSV, is one of the most common infections in the world. As of 2009, it was estimated that 60% to 95% of the world population had some form of herpes simplex infection.
  • HSV is part of a larger family of viruses, herpesviridae, which includes the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), shingles, and chickenpox.
  • The older you are, the more likely you are to have some form of herpes. There’s no cure for herpes, either; once you have it, you have it for life. The frequency and severity of outbreaks can be managed with antivirals such as acyclovir and valacyclovir, however.
  • There’s a very good chance that you’ve caught herpes and don’t know it; the CDC estimates 87.4% of those who get herpes never show symptoms or receive a clinical diagnosis. Furthermore, most people shedding herpes virus particles don’t know it’s happening, but careful management can protect your partner.
  • There are two forms of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is generally something you catch in childhood, and is usually the cause of cold sores. HSV-2 is more likely to be caught after you’ve become sexually active, and is usually the cause of genital herpes. You can also have herpes sores on your fingers, esophagus, and in rare cases, in your eyes, hair follicles, or brain.
  • The course of the disease is that the first outbreak is usually the worst, with painful sores and flu-like symptoms, and then outbreaks will become less frequent and intense over time.
  • After that outbreak, herpes becomes what’s called a latent infection. It tends to hide in the central nervous system near the point of your first outbreak. When it tries to venture out, it’s usually contained by the immune system. This is also true of other herpes viruses; your immune system and shingles, caused by herpes zoster, have a similar interaction.
  • Outbreaks can be triggered by stress on the body, such as a compromised immune system, emotional distress, or physical injuries.

It’s these last two facts that have doctors wondering just what, if anything, herpes might do to the immune system.

Does a Weakened Immune System Cause Herpes Breakouts?

While a breakout isn’t guaranteed if you have a weakened immune system, they are more likely. One form of herpes, for example, Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, causes a type of skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is usually only found in severely immunocompromised people, such as people living with AIDS.

Researchers theorize that this is why mental stress is a factor in herpes breakouts. Stress can hinder the immune system, giving the virus a chance to slip out and cause problems. That said, immune cells usually put it back in its place in short order.

Does Herpes Weaken Your Immune System?

Herpes has been shown to have some surprising methods of getting around the immune system. In 2013, it was found that HSV-1 can get into cells using a “doorway” designed for immune cells called macrophages.

Further research found that, when HSV-1 does get in a cell, it hides from the immune system by hijacking a cell’s structures and forcing it to shut down, much the same way criminals might hide a drug lab in an abandoned building. Since then, scientists have found other ways that herpes learns to evade the immune system, including how rare herpes infections of the brain might happen.

Strangely enough, though, there’s evidence that herpes is actually beneficial to the immune system in some ways. Since it gets into the body early and takes up space nastier viruses might occupy.

Because it’s in the interest of the herpes virus that you stay alive, it may stimulate the immune response to go after other viruses, including even highly infectious and dangerous ones like yersinia pestis, aka the Black Death.

Currently, it’s not generally believed that herpes weakens the immune system. And if you’re wondering whether you can be immune to herpes, either naturally or through getting one infection, an HSV-1 infection won’t prevent HSV-2 or vice versa.

Can Herpes Cause Autoimmune Disease?

There’s evidence that some herpes viruses, at least, may either make some autoimmune diseases worse or even enable them in the first place. Yet it’s a question of which type of herpes and what it does.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), for example, may play a role in several common autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Whether it greases the way or helps cause them is an open question.

Over the years, there have been case studies demonstrating that herpes can cause problems for people with other autoimmune conditions, such as causing ketoacidosis in diabetes patients, or that it can take advantage of related problems, such as malnutrition in people suffering from celiac disease.

Again, though, none of this is evidence that herpes is the cause of any autoimmune disease, just that it’s a potentially aggravating factor. More research will need to be done before we know if herpes causes problems or is just a viral opportunist.

Dealing With Herpes and an Autoimmune Disorder

Whether herpes is the cause or just another medical problem to deal with, there are a few steps you can take.

  • Let your doctor know as much about your herpes infection as possible, including when you experienced your first outbreak, where you generally get outbreaks, and their overall severity.
  • Talk about possible treatments. Most commonly, doctors will put you on antivirals to manage your herpes before launching any other treatments, especially if your outbreaks are unusually severe.
  • Keep an eye out for the signs of a possible outbreak, such as a burning or tingling in areas where you usually experience outbreaks, or pain in your lower back and legs.
  • If an outbreak happens, let your doctor know right away.
  • Stay current on the latest science and best practices. Scientists are learning more about herpes all the time, and new approaches and ideas are becoming available.

Don’t Let Herpes Dominate Your Life

Living with herpes doesn’t have to dominate your life. Follow the eDrugstore blog to learn how to maintain your sexual health and live with herpes more effectively, safely, and happily.

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