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U.S. Teens More Vulnerable to Genital Herpes: Study

They may have lower levels of protective antibodies to the virus than in years past
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Oct. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Today's teens may be at higher risk than ever of contracting genital herpes because they don't have enough immune system antibodies to shield them against the sexually transmitted virus, a new study suggests.

This increase in risk may be the result of fewer teens being exposed in childhood to the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), a common cause of cold sores, researchers reported Oct. 17 in the online edition of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

"HSV-1 now is the predominant herpes strain causing genital infection," explained Dr. David Kimberlin, chair of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, and the author of a journal editorial.

According to Kimberlin, the new findings suggest that almost one in 10 adolescents who a decade ago would have already acquired HSV-1 and built up some immunity may now encounter HSV-1 when they first become sexually active. That could leave them more susceptible to genital herpes than young people were in the past.

"This [also] has potentially significant consequences on neonatal herpes transmission," which occurs when a baby contracts the herpes virus from a genitally infected mother, Kimberlin said. "We must continue to monitor these changes and watch for shifts in neonatal herpes infection that possibly could result."

Of the eight types of herpes, the two that are most important in terms of disease transmission are HSV-1 and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), both of which cause lifelong infections with no known cure. These viruses can have dormant periods after an initial outbreak. HSV-1 is usually contracted in childhood, by skin-to-skin contact with an infected adult, whereas HSV-2 is most often sexually transmitted.

However, recent research indicates that HSV-1 is becoming a major cause of genital herpes in industrialized countries. One study found nearly 60 percent of genital herpes infections were caused by HSV-1, the researchers noted.

A shift by young people toward participation in oral sex might help explain the trend, experts said, since the herpes virus can easily be transmitted in this way from the mouth to the genitals.

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