Facts About Herpes

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Dr. Tom Ferguson covered the facts about herpes in his regular Medical Self Care column.
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The general public had a poor understanding of the facts about herpes in the early 1980s.

Genital herpes isn’t the sort of subject that we usually cover in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. However, since there has been a good bit of seemingly misleading information about this illness in the media lately–and because so much of that information has been of a “scare story” nature–we felt that our readers deserved the facts about herpes and an opportunity to read a matter-of-fact discussion of the “new” disease that has affected the lives of a great many North Americans.

An Epidemic of Ignorance

It’s estimated that some 20 million Americans now have sexually transmitted herpes, a disease that’s been called “the heartbreaker” largely because health workers often say (incorrectly!) that it is incurable. The fact is, however, that the body itself can cure this infection, and that people who help their bodies deal with it suffer less frequent and less severe attacks.

Herpes is caused by either of two closely related viruses: the herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2). Both the HSV’s are “contact viruses”: that is, they’re spread from person to person by direct skin-to-skin contact… usually kissing (in the case of the familiar oral, or labial, herpes that’s usually called a cold sore) or sexual contact (in the case of genital herpes). In fact, the only difference between cold sores and genital herpes is in the location of the infection!

Genital herpes sores are painful reddish blisters that erupt on the penis, on the vaginal lips, or inside the vagina. They last from one to several weeks, then disappear.

Many “experts” call herpes incurable because there is–at present–no drug capable of destroying the virus and no vaccine able to confer immunity. The same facts are true, of course, of the common cold … and the body deals with a herpes infection in the same way it copes with a cold: It mobilizes the immune system to cure it.

Furthermore, in the immune-system/herpes battle, the former is heavily favored. In fact, only about one-third of the people who acquire the virus ever experience the recurrent flare-ups commonly thought to be always associated with it.

When considered as a physical illness, herpes is actually a relatively minor ailment. What concerns most sufferers is not the discomfort of the sores, but rather the emotional distress of having an illness that can complicate lovemaking relationships.

However, the central truth about herpes is that those who experience such emotional upset, anxiety, and stress over the illness are much more likely to have a difficult time with it than are folks who remain calm. Adopting a positive attitude–a “wellness orientation”–seems the best way to break the psychological “grip” of herpes and help your body cure any attack that might occur.

Herpes is most likely to erupt–as are colds–at times when the body is fatigued, ill, or under stress. By incorporating a personal “stress management program” into his or her day–whether it consists of meditation, jogging, or what have you–the herpes sufferer can keep his or her resistance up and recurrences down.

Prevent Transmission

It is believed that the use of condoms will prevent transmission of herpes when visible sores are present. However, the blisters are likely to be painful enough to make lovemaking uncomfortable. Furthermore, because there is a danger of transmitting the illness when sores are active, it’s probably a good idea to refrain from intercourse during such times.

Some people with herpes may be infectious for a period before a recurring sore becomes visible, too. Many such men and women notice a slight tingling or itchy feeling a day or two prior to an out-break. This period of “warning” is called the “prodrome.” It serves as a signal that a sore is soon to erupt, and is similar to the feeling many of us experience when we know that “a cold’s coming on”.

People who have had herpes should learn to recognize their prodromes. Once they can do so, they can not only prevent transmission, but can also use relaxation exercises–or soothing activities such as hot baths or naps–to attempt to reduce the severity of the coming attack.

Is There Hope for a Cure?

Lots of folks ask me whether there will ever be a drug or vaccine to control herpes, and–at this point–I can only answer “maybe.” Last year, the Food and Drug Administration authorized testing of a substance called 2-deoxy-D-glucose, which apparently hinders the replication of the herpes virus. The experimental cancer cure, interferon, may also prove to be useful against herpes. At present, however, the FDA has not licensed any drugs for the treatment of the illness.

The Real Dangers

Herpes sores are sometimes confused with those of syphilis. Both appear as red blisters, and both clear themselves up after a (variable) period of time. Herpes blisters, however, are almost always painful, while those of syphilis, a much more dangerous disease, are generally painless. If you even think that a genital sore might be a symptom of syphilis, call your local health department or visit a doctor. It takes many years for the symptoms of advanced syphilis to appear, but when they do, they can be terribly serious.

Another real danger associated with herpes is its apparent link with cervical cancer. It is not yet known whether herpes can actually cause this cancer, but a correlation has been found between the two diseases. Cervical cancer is nearly 100% curable if detected early. Women with herpes should probably have two Pap tests a year, rather than the one test usually recommended.

Finally, it is true that a pregnant woman can– only if she’s in her prodrome or has active sores at the time of delivery–transmit herpes to her child. Because of this, most doctors insist upon performing caesarean sections on mothers who are in a contagious stage.

Herpes Info Resources

HELP, a program of the American Social Health Association, provides personal support for people with herpes. Membership includes access to the private HELPLINE telephone service staffed by health educators and resource librarians, and to the local herpes support groups now meeting in many cities in the United States and Canada. HELP membership also includes a subscription to THE HELPER, a quarterly newsletter and the best resource for keeping up on the research, psychological, and public policy aspects of herpes.  

In 1976, Tom Ferguson–then a fourth-year medical student at
Yale–launched a magazine called Medical Self-Care, which he hoped would
serve as “a Whole Earth Catalog of the best medical books, tools, and

Tom spoke of his plans for the publication and of
his conviction that self-care could raise the general level of health in
this country and lower our inflated levels of medical spending in a
MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview, and left no doubt that he would work toward
making those “dreams”come true.

Well, Tom Ferguson is Doctor
Ferguson now, and the medical self-care “movement” — as well as Tom’s
magazine — has flourished. People are beginning to assume more
responsibility for their own well-being and are eager for information
that will help them take better care of their bodies.

So in an effort to provide just such very necessary data, MOTHER EARTH NEWS offers this regular feature by Tom Ferguson, M.D.