Is It Possible To Develop Immunity to Herpes?
If you’re one of the millions of adults infected with the herpes virus, you know how troublesome and embarrassing living with herpes can be. Or, perhaps your partner has herpes, and you’re wondering whether you’ll contract it as well.
Either way, you may be asking, “Can you be immune to herpes?”
Herpes is a stubborn virus, and there is currently no known cure. Once you’re infected, it’s a lifetime condition; however, there are plenty of ways to manage it and minimize the symptoms.
While you can still live a full life with herpes, many people want to know whether immunity to herpes is possible.
About the Herpes Virus
There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV) — HSV-1 and HSV-2.
HSV-1 is often referred to as a cold sore virus. Infection presents as a white or yellow sore on your lips or around your mouth. HSV-1 can spread from person to person through oral contact, such as kissing, eating or drinking after an infected person, or sharing items that are used on or near the mouth, such as lip balm, a toothbrush, or a straw.
Cold sores are contagious not only through mouth-to-mouth contact, but also through mouth-to-genital contact during oral sex, which can lead to genital herpes.
Cold sores are extremely common and generally nothing to worry about. It’s estimated that about 67% of the world population under the age of 50 has HSV-1.
HSV-2 is the strain of herpes virus that more typically causes genital herpes. It’s classified as a sexually transmitted infection, or STI, meaning it spreads through sexual contact. HSV-2 likely affects about 13% of the world population under 50.
The primary symptoms of genital herpes are outbreaks of sores around the genital or anal area. The sores start out as small blisters that fill with fluid, burst, and scab over. They can be itchy and/or painful and take anywhere from two to four weeks to completely heal. A herpes infection is most contagious from the time sores form until all the scabs fall off and the skin underneath completely heals.
Just as cold sores can lead to genital herpes through oral-to-genital sexual contact, genital herpes can cause cold sores via oral sex. This seems to be less common, however.
Can You Be Immune to Herpes?
Now that you know more about cold sores, genital herpes, and how these conditions spread, let’s revisit the following question: Can you be immune to herpes?
First, let’s examine just what “immunity” means.
Your immune system protects your body from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins by identifying little particles, called antigens, on their surfaces. This natural defense system has two parts: innate immunity and acquired immunity.
When you’re born, your innate immune system already includes certain measures to fight invaders, such as mucus production and cough reflex. Over time, as more and more new germs make it past those innate defenses, your acquired immune system learns how to recognize and fight them by building up defenses against their specific antigens.
So, a teacher is more likely to develop strong immunity to the common cold than someone who works from home. Every day, that teacher interacts with children carrying cold germs, giving the acquired immune system ample opportunity to develop a targeted defense. The remote worker, however, interacts with far fewer people, so their immune system can’t develop the same level of protection.
What About Immunity to Herpes?
So, is it possible to have herpes immunity?
The simple answer to this question is no, herpes immunity is likely not possible. Genital herpes and cold sores have no cure, and there is no immunity to herpes among the general population.
Some people might mistakenly believe they have herpes immunity if they’re exposed to the herpes virus and don’t develop an active breakout. Unfortunately, this doesn’t indicate an immunity to herpes. A herpes infection can lie dormant in the body for months or even years without producing any symptoms. This is why so many people with a herpes infection don’t know they have the virus (and can spread it).
As far as scientists know, there’s no evidence that herpes immunity exists, no matter how long an infection stays dormant.
Is There a Herpes Vaccine?
So, if you can’t be immune to herpes, does a herpes vaccine exist?
Vaccines take advantage of your body’s acquired immune system to pre-emptively prepare to fight invaders. Normally, when your body comes into contact with an antigen that triggers an immune response, it develops ways to fight that germ and stores the information for the future. A vaccine introduces a non-threatening version of germ to the body so the immune system can develop defenses before it ever encounters the actual disease.
Some vaccines provide full protection from their diseases, such as measles and polio. Other vaccines provide temporary or partial protection, such as the flu vaccine.
Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for herpes at this time. No company has managed to develop a commercially ready herpes vaccine. At least three pharmaceutical companies recently attempted clinical trials for herpes vaccine candidates, but all three abandoned their research after failing to meet their primary endpoints.
It all comes down to the unique behavior of the herpes simplex virus. Herpes is a complex virus that knows exactly how to evade the immune system’s usual activity. It lies dormant in nerve cells for months or years at a time, reemerging without warning to reactivate the infection. In this way, herpes behaves like cancer, lurking in the body undetected until the damage is already done.
Additionally, as long as a minuscule amount of the virus remains after an outbreak fades, herpes easily survives and can reappear in future outbreaks.
Could CRISPR Create Herpes Immunity?
The ultimate herpes cure may not come from a vaccine, a prescription medication, or an ointment. It may actually come from genome editing, a method of changing the DNA makeup of a single cell or organism.
CRISPR-Cas9, more commonly known by its shorthand “CRISPR,” is a specialized stretch of DNA sequences with a specialized “cutting” protein that can cut through DNA strands.
CRISPR technology was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria. These single-celled microorganisms use CRISPR-derived RNA and proteins like Cas9 to defend against attacks by viral invaders. As viruses approach, bacteria use Cas9 to chop up and destroy the attackers’ DNA.
In December of 2019, scientists from Harvard Medical School successfully disrupted the herpes simplex virus for the first time ever and identified weak spots where the virus may be susceptible to gene editing.
This could be the first step in the long journey to achieving a herpes cure!
The Implications of Asymptomatic Herpes
It’s important to address asymptomatic herpes when discussing the question, can you be immune to herpes?
As mentioned above, if you never develop symptoms, it’s easy to assume you have an immunity to herpes. But this isn’t the case.
People usually define a herpes infection by its unpleasant and embarrassing symptoms. However, asymptomatic herpes is surprisingly common. As many as 90% of people infected with herpes don’t know they have the virus because they’ve never experienced an outbreak.
Unfortunately, people without symptoms can still spread herpes to others due to a phenomenon known as asymptomatic shedding. Asymptomatic shedding occurs when the herpes virus is present on the skin but no visible symptoms appear. The virus “sheds” from the skin and spreads to others through skin-to-skin contact. For cold sores, this could be from something as simple as a kiss on the cheek. For genital herpes, this is usually from sexual contact.
According to research, at least 70% of infected people experience asymptomatic shedding of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) at least once a month. Many shed the virus without symptoms more than six times per month.
Asymptomatic shedding occurs with genital herpes as well. In fact, experts emphasize that it occurs with much greater frequency than previously believed. Women with the HSV-2 shed an average of 28% of days, and during this time, transmitting the virus through sexual contact is very possible.
Take Steps to Prevent the Spread of Herpes
Since there’s no cure for herpes and no herpes immunity, the best way to avoid an outbreak is to avoid contracting the virus in the first place. Know the facts and create a safe environment for yourself and your partner. For example, using protection during any type of intercourse will lower your risk of contracting herpes, as will having open conversations with your partner.
Though you can’t eliminate outbreaks entirely if you already have the virus, you’re less likely to spread herpes to others as long as it remains dormant.
Here are a few practices that can help!
Even without herpes immunity, you can’t go wrong by eating healthy and taking helpful supplements. Clinical and anecdotal evidence indicates certain food and nutrient choices can prevent herpes outbreaks.
First, eating a healthy, immune-boosting diet keeps your body functioning properly and allows it to focus on suppressing the herpes virus as much as possible. Lean proteins like eggs, almonds, and chicken play a key role in your body’s ability to fight infection.
Fatty acids are also indispensable in your battle against inflammation. Salmon, chia seeds, flaxseed, and mackerel can superpower your body’s response to inflammation and limit or manage the effects of your herpes infection.
Vitamins B, C, and E also play roles in supporting the immune system and quickly healing herpes outbreaks. You can increase your intake by taking high-quality supplements or adding more vitamin-rich foods to your daily diet.
Zinc’s virucidal characteristics make it an excellent nutrient to include either through supplementation or by eating foods like chickpeas, lamb, pork, and wheat germ.
Finally, lysine — an amino acid that supports immune function and promotes skin healing — also seems to offer specific benefits for people with the herpes virus. Research is ongoing, but recent reports suggest daily lysine supplementation can lessen the recurrence of herpes outbreaks.
Lysine reduces the body’s absorption of arginine — another essential amino acid — which the herpes virus uses to replicate. Though lower doses of lysine show little effect, high doses of up to 3,000 mg per day may be beneficial.
Without immunity to herpes, taking good care of yourself is essential to keeping the virus in check.
Herpes Treatment Options
There are several standard treatment methods that can help you cope with the symptoms of herpes during an active outbreak.
Over the Counter Medicines
Over-the-counter ointments and pain relievers from your local pharmacy can help manage your symptoms. Also, be sure to wear loose-fitting clothing to avoid irritation and keep the affected area clean and dry.
Your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs like valacyclovir to prevent future outbreaks and keep the virus from spreading in your body.
You may find relief from a warm Epsom salt bath or by applying diluted apple cider vinegar (one part vinegar, three parts cool water) to the affected area. A paste of crushed garlic and olive oil may help as well.
The recent increase in the availability of light therapy means you can now use light therapy to manage your herpes infection at home.
The Luminance RED, for example, offers two FDA-registered phototherapy devices to help manage both cold sores and genital herpes outbreaks. This type of phototherapy uses medically optimized red light, shining it onto the affected area to nourish skin cells, accelerate the healing process, and strengthen defenses against future attacks.
You may be disappointed with this answer to the question, can you be immune to herpes? But there’s good news. Research is going on all the time, searching for new and innovative ways to treat — and potentially cure — this condition.
Light therapy is just one example of the incredible breakthroughs that can develop. With as fast as technology moves today, a new treatment or even a herpes vaccine could be just one scientific innovation away!