Let’s talk about Herpes!

A bad reputation

The term ‘’herpes’’ is scary due in fact to popular culture and the myths surrounding the subject. Most people would be surprised to learn that the virus called herpes simplex is found in a large part of the population. While it is a fact that herpes can negatively impact some people, a positive diagnosis is quite common and is usually not a serious disease.

By understanding better what herpes really is, we can feel less anxiety about the subject and approach screening and diagnosis with a calmer, clearer mind. Whether you are a carrier, are thinking about getting a screening or have a partner who is a carrier, the more you know the better.

A few facts about herpes:

  • What people refer to as herpes is in fact two strands of the herpes simplex virus, HSV1 and HSV2.
  • The herpes virus is part of a bigger family of viruses including chicken pox, shingles (HHV3 for both), mononucleosis (HHV4) and rubella (HHV6).
  • The prevalence* of herpes simplex varies from one world region to another.
  • Herpes simplex cannot be cured, but most carriers are asymptomatic, and those who are not typically see the severity and length of their outbreaks diminish over time.
  • Because the two types of herpes simplex are genetically similar, carriers of one type are less likely to contract the other, although it is possible to be a carrier for the two types at once.
  • The herpes virus, unlike other STIs like hepatitis B or HIV, does not pose long term health risks for the vast majority of its carriers.

*The percentage of a population affected by a particular disease at a given time

Herpes Simplex Type 1 (HSV1)

The first type of herpes simplex is the one most often associated with oral lesions. What we commonly call cold sores are caused by HSV1, but can also be the cause for genital herpes. Most people that carry HSV1 are not aware that they are in fact carriers, having never had symptoms or having missed them. Herpes of type 1 tends to be contracted during childhood, at the contact of family or school friends. When HSV1 is contracted as an adult, oral sex can be a conduit to genital infection.

The World Health Organization stated back in 2012 that 3.7 billion of people are estimated to live with an HSV1 infection. This number represents 67% of the world population. Prevalence has been found to be highest in Africa where 87% of the population is a carrier, and the lowest in America with 40 to 50%.

When HSV1 manifests symptoms, lesions appear provoking a tingling or burning sensation. If you are experiencing recurring episodes, you can discuss with your doctor about the possibility of having an antiviral medication prescribed to shorten the length and severity of your outbreaks.

Herpes Simplex Type 2 (HSV2)

The HSV2 virus is more commonly known to cause genital herpes. Contrary to the type 1 that can be found orally or genitally, HSV2 is much less likely to cause oral herpes and is mainly sexually transmitted.

However, much like HSV1, most people that are carriers of HSV are unaware of their condition due to unrecognized or unnoticed symptoms. Around 11% of the world population lives with HSV2. Transmission occurs during sexual encounters by contact with the skin, genital or anal areas and can happen even in the absence of visible symptoms.

Symptoms of HSV2 can be managed with the same antiviral medication as HSV1.

Who should get screened for herpes?

Because the herpes virus has such a high prevalence in the general population, routinely screening for it is not advised. It is however possible to address the issue in consultation to know if it would be pertinent to add a herpes screening to your laboratories. In the absence of symptoms, the measure of antibodies (IgM) can point to a recent infection between ten days and three weeks from a contact, whereas the measure of anti-genes (IgG) tells us about the immune system’s long term memory and can signal a past infection.

Screening for herpes simplex type 1 and 2 is preferably done by collecting biological liquid from recent and active lesions. If you are experiencing any symptoms, we will proceed to a culture of the sample to identify the virus and make the right diagnosis. The subject of herpes can be complex.That is why our screening include a consultation time with a nurse or doctor to ensure the right tests are prescribed and all your questions are answered. Whether you are wondering if you should screen for herpes or are worried you might have symptoms, the first step is to talk about it.

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