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Today’s Teens More Likely to Catch Genital Herpes

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Today's teens are more likely than ever to contract genital herpes, according to a new study from the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Learn more about this highly contagious disease and how to keep your teens safe below.

A new study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases has shown that today’s teens have fewer antibodies against the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses. This makes it easier for teens to contract genital herpes, which is an incurable virus that results in painful outbreaks for the rest of a person’s life.

Why are today’s teens more at risk? Read on to find out.

Study Details

The study, showed some surprising statistics about today’s teens. In the study, researchers looked at the HSV-1 and HSV-2 infection rates among 14 to 49 year olds. Using this data, they determined how many of the people had antibodies against the HSV virus in various age groups (from 1999-2004 and 2005-2010).

The study took place over a period of 10 years, and the researchers looked at the data in each participant several times when they reached various age levels. In teens aged between 14 to 19, 23 percent of teens had fewer HSV-1 antibodies between 2005 and 2010 than between 1999-2004. 20 to 29 year-olds had 10 percent fewer antibodies to the HSV-1 virus between 2005 and 2010 than between 1999 and 2004. Individuals aged between 30 and 40, however, had the same rate of infection.

This clearly indicates a declining rate of infection for the HSV-1 virus. Although the HSV-1 virus is hardly thought of as something that is good to get, it may help children avoid getting genital herpes in adulthood. Basically, the HSV-1 virus acts as a kind of natural vaccine against the HSV-2 virus.

What is HSV-1?

HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus-1) is a highly contagious virus that affects up to 90 percent of people. In fact, it is rare for a person to not be exposed to the virus as a child. According to the University of Maryland, 62 percent of children have HSV-1 by the time they reach adolescence, and 85 percent of people have HSV-1 by the time they reach the age of 65. However, that appears to be changing, as evidenced by this study and other recent studies about HSV-1.

Simple human contact including kissing, touching a person’s mouth, sharing cups and utensils, or even coughing or sneezing can pass the virus on to another person. The virus manifests as a small red bump either on the corner of the lip or inside the mouth. After a few days, the bump erupts and leaves a small, painful crater behind. This is the same manifestation of the virus as appears on the genitals, but usually an genital infection is larger and more painful.

How Do Teens Catch HSV-1?

Teens catch HSV-1 the same way any other child or adult catches it- through contact with another’s persona saliva. If a teen engages in sexual activity with another teen who has HSV-1 or HSV-2, the chances are high that he or she will get the virus, particularly if their antibody levels are already low. It is particularly easy for teens to pass HSV-1 through oral contact, such as kissing.

Can HSV-1 Turn into HSV-2?

It was thought in the past that cold sores could not travel to any other location in the body. Scientists thought that HSV-1 was “above the waist” and HSV-2 was “below the waist.” However, research today has indicated that that is no longer the case. Oral herpes can be transmitted into the genital area. The virus still remains as a form of the HSV-1 virus, but it can definitely still be transferred to the area where HSV-2 outbreaks normally occur.

In fact, according to the 2013 published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, around 60 percent of genital herpes cases are now caused by the HSV-1 virus.

Why do Fewer Teens Have HSV-1 Today?

This particular study did not look at why fewer teens today have HSV-1. However, the lack of antibodies against the HSV-1 virus could be caused by a variety of factors. Today’s children, for example, take antibiotics more frequently than children in the past. Virus-based vaccines, like the HPV vaccine or the chickenpox vaccine could possibly prevent the development of the HSV-1 virus as well.

Physical contact between children and other children, and children and adults, is much less than it was in the past. Many elementary schools have a “no-share” policy, preventing children from sharing cups, eating utensils, and food. All of these protective measures could lead to a reduction in HSV-1 antibodies in teens and young children, possibly related to the hygiene hypothesis created by David P. Strachan in 1989.

How Do Teens Catch HSV-2?

In the past, it was thought that HSV-1 was an “above the waist” herpes, and HSV-2 was a “below the waist” herpes. However, since 2002, there have been increasing reports of HSV-1 converting into HSV-2, or simply showing up below the waist while remaining in HSV-1 form. Since today’s children and teens have fewer antibodies to HSV-1, it makes since that catching genital herpes is also easier for teens.

Researchers believe there are three reasons for the rise in genital herpes cases.

Reduced Antibodies

Fewer teens today have HSV-1 infections, possibly for the reasons listed above ranging from no-touch policies to an increase in vaccines and antibiotics. Since teens have fewer natural antibodies to the virus, when they do encounter the virus, it manifests as a more severe case, or in places previously thought impossible, including below the waist.

Oral Sex

According to the research, more cases of oral sex could also be to blame. According to Dr. David Kimberlin, who wrote an editorial on the study, more teens are engaging in oral sex as it is seen as a “safer” practice to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Oral sex carries a lot of risks along with it, however, particularly if teens engage in oral sex without protection. One of the biggest risks of oral sex occurs when a teen has an oral herpes outbreak. During an HSV-1 outbreak, it is possible to transfer the virus from the mouth to the genitals.

Increased Sexual Activity

According to a 2010 study from Australia published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, more teens are having sex than ever (at least in Australia). In the study of over 8,800 teens, sexual activity rates were compared from 1997 to 2008. In 1997, about 19 percent of male students and 12 percent of female students reported engaging in sexual activity. In 2008, 44 percent of male students and 61 percent of female students reported engaging in sexual activities. According to the Center for Disease Control, American students have similar reports. According to the CDC statistics from 2011, 47 percent of teens reported engaging in sexual activity. An increase in sexual activity as a whole, particularly if the sexual activity takes place without protective measures, may be causing the surge of genital herpes in today’s teens.

Overall, an increase in sex, reduction in cold sores, and rise in oral sex is contributing to the rise in genital herpes for young people.

Other Dangers of the HSV Virus

According to research, mothers with any below-the-waist infection of HSV-1 or HSV-2 can pass that virus on to their babies. In a baby with an underdeveloped immune system, the virus can be quite dangerous, and even deadly. If babies contract the worst form of the virus, up to 30 percent of the infants die from the virus.

Reducing HSV-2 Risk

The easiest way to reduce the risk of getting HSV-2 or genital herpes of any kind is to always use safe sex practices. Teens should always use a condom while engaging in sexual activities- even oral sex. Teens should also abstain from sexual activity and exchanging saliva when they have a cold sore (or if their boyfriend or girlfriend has a cold sore).

The cold sore virus can easily pass from teen to teen, and can result in some cases of genital herpes. Children who get HSV-1 younger in life have a reduced risk of getting the HSV-2 virus, according to the study.

Preventing HSV-2 Outbreaks

Once you have the virus, there is no cure for the virus. However, you can lessen your chances of seeing an outbreak with the right lifestyle and supplement choices.

Supplements for Herpes

Can you stop herpes outbreaks with supplements? A few supplements can help control herpes symptoms and reduce outbreaks. These supplements include:

  • Selenium: What is the number one immune-boosting supplement and anti-viral supplement? According to Harvard Medical School, selenium supplements are one of the most effective supplements that you can take to reduce HSV flare-ups.
  • L-lysine: L-lysine has the nickname of “the anti-herpes nutrient.” In 1987, researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine found that patients who took l-lysine supplements saw 2.4 fewer outbreaks per year, and were able to heal much faster.
  • Licorice, green tea, and cinnamon: In 2013, one study published in “Pharmacology & Pharmacy” journal indicated that a mixture of cinnamon, licorice, and green tea was effective at reducing the frequency of herpes breakouts.
Supplements that Fight Herpes
  • Selenium
  • L-lysine
  • Licorice
  • Green tea
  • Cinnamon

Boost the Immune System

If you boost your immune system, you will see fewer herpes outbreaks. Have you ever noticed how your get more cold sores when you are feeling under the weather or in times of stress? This is because ordinarily, your body produces enough anti-virals to prevent herpes flare-ups. However, when your immune system is compromised, you will see a higher incidence of flare-ups. The following immune-boosting foods can help you fight flare-ups:

Foods that Fight HSV 
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Oysters
  • Liver
  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Dairy products
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Fish
  • Mushrooms
  • Eggs

Rest and Lifestyle

During times of stress, the body is more likely to face a lowered immune system. Teens today face a particularly unhealthy lifestyle, with combinations of too-little sleep, poor diets, and too much stress. A caregiver can help a teen fight any kind of infection by helping teens learn to manage stress, ensuring the teen gets enough sleep, and providing the healthiest diet possible full of nutrient-dense foods that will provide natural anti-viral protection for the teen. Caregivers can model healthy practices, which could provide greater incentive for teens to life a healthy lifestyle.

Protecting Teens from HSV

Unfortunately, there is little that caregivers can do to stop teens from getting genital herpes. Caregivers can instruct children in safe sex practices, and recommend children avoid sexual activities that may lead to herpes infections. Caregivers can also provide proper immune support in the form of herpes-fighting supplements and foods that will provide additional protection. In addition to these measures, caregivers can encourage teens to get enough rest, and to avoid contact with other teen’s saliva to help reduce their chances of contracting either form of virus.

Next Article: Itching from Herpes? Learn How to Stop it