What is Herpes?

The “would you date someone with herpes?” thread has me all confused about viruses and sexually transmitted diseases.

I assume we have all sorts of viruses in or on our bodies all the time, but our immune system keeps them in check generally.

And so strictly speaking we all have lots of sexually transmitted viruses, but we only really care about the ones that actually cause some sort of noticeable symptom. Is that true?

I’m also guessing each person’s immune system is variable in its strength. Having a virus doesn’t automatically give you a disease. Is that right?

I read that Herpes once you have it stays in your body for life, and may be communicable even if asymptomatic. Is this true of all viruses?

And what does this really mean? Is it a technicality, and an outside possibility, or is it something common enough to worry about?

Herpes is a genus of viruses. It includes Herpes simplex type 1 (“cold sores”), Herpes simplex type 2 (genital herpes), Vancella (Herpes) zoster (chickenpox and shingles), Epstein-Barr syndrome, and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Wiklipedia on the Herpes viruses

Kind of.

We have some viruses as an approximately stable part of our DNA. These viruses usually stay put within the genetic code. We pass them on to our children and they to their children and so forth. IOW what we call humans are partly viruses. These integrated viruses aren’t usually an issue, although occasionally they will break free and start replicating, usually as a result of an infection form another virus. Needless to say we can’t fight off these viruses so long as they remain solely in the DNA form.

With the majority of viruses we get infected, they replicate a few gazillion times, the immune system fights them off and they die. End of story. The virus is eliminated from the body.

The herpes viruses are the third type. We get infected, they replicate a few gazillion times, the immune system fights them off and they die… mostly. The problem is that some of the viruses hide within the DNA of the host. IOW they become like the integrated viruses, and this is presumably how we came to stable viruses as part of our DNA in the first place. While bound to the host DNA they disable the normal immune system responses that allow it to detect infected cells. As a result, once you get a herpes infection, you have it for life. Every now and then, a few viral strands start to replicate and infect new cells.

So it’s not strictly the case that we always have viral infections and they are kept in check. Most viral infections are eliminated completely in short order. The herpes viruses are problematic because they can’t be eliminated. An infected person can be temporarily asymptomatic, but they remain infected for life.

Not really. The fact is that all viruses are sexually transmitted because sex is a really good way of transmitting viruses. It’s a process designed specifically for transmitting genetic material, of course it transmits viruses. If you have sex with somebody with influenza or rabies, you have a good chance of contracting sexually transmitted rabies or influenza.

What we normally call sexually transmitted viruses are the ones that can’t be readily acquired through other means. Because the average human doesn’t have many sexual partners over a short period of time, sexually transmitted viruses are also very difficult for the immune systems to eliminate. They need to be. A disease spread through sneezing can propagate quite readily even if every single host eliminates it within 7 days, because in 7 days it is guaranteed to be transferred to a new host. A virus that can only be transmitted sexually that can only survive in each host for seven days is going to become extinct almost instantly, because almost no hosts will have sex with a new partner within that window.

We don’t have lots of sexually transmitted viruses because it’s a really niche existence for a virus.

You can be infected with a virus and not express any symptoms, if that is what you are asking. HIV is the most obvious example of that, where most people are asymptomatic for years following infection.

No, it’s relatively rare. That’s why viral vaccines work. Once you contract most viruses they can be eliminated completely by the immune system.

It’s not only common, it’s fairly much universal. If you have herpes then you will occasionally be shedding the virus even while asymptomatic or with only vague symptoms that you would mistake for a mild cold. How often that is depends on the individual. Some people might go years without shedding, others seem to shed nearly constantly despite being asymptomatic. But everyone with herpes is infective at least some of the time despite being asymptomatic.

What we think of as the herpes virus is actually two different viruses: herpes simplex I and II. Traditionally, type I is responsible for cold sores, and type II is responsible for genital herpes, but this distinction is becoming weaker over time, for the reason you’ll probably think of if you think about it for a bit.

Herpes viruses are unusual among human pathogenic viruses because of their ability to “hide” inside nerve cells by integrating their genome into our own DNA. This latent infection reemerges periodically as cold sores or genital sores, which shed virus particles by the bucketload, but even as an active breakout is occurring, that copy is still sitting there in the DNA of the nerve cell, untouched. Chicken pox, which is also a type of herpes, does the same thing, reemerging years later as shingles.

Need answer fast?

Semi-related questions:

Just how many of these viruses hiding in our DNA code do we have? How old are they? Are there any that have never been shown to be active in humans anymore and just sit there as relics of a bygone time? Could one of these possibly “awaken” and represent a danger to use in the future? Do they have names?

Sorry for the question barrage! :slight_smile:

There are thousands of virus remnants in the human genome. Wikipedia estimates 8% of the genome as being made up of viral remains, but I could swear I’ve heard much higher numbers.

As for reawakening, no. The reason they’re still there is because they’ve lost some or all of the vital elements required for them to reactivate. The bigger danger is of these elements popping out from where they are and plopping themselves down in the middle of some important gene sequence. The article linked about discusses diseases caused by this happening. There are pretty sophisticated mechanisms in the cell specifically aimed at keeping levels of transposable elements down to a manageable level. My research tangentially involves some of those genes.