Herpes and Cancer

The herpes simplex virus or HSV is an infection that causes herpes. Herpes can grow on any part of the body but is most commonly found in the mouth or genital area. There are two types of the herpes simplex virus. Herpes Simplex 1 which is known as oral herpes, can cause mouth sores, cold sores, and fever blisters around the mouth and on the face. Herpes Simplex 2 is prevalent in all cases of sores presenting in the genital area of the body.

This contagious virus is passed from person to person through direct contact. Young children will often contract the herpes virus from an infected adult and then carry the virus themselves for the rest of their lives. Infections with herpes simplex 1 can be shared from general interactions like eating from the same utensils, sharing lip balm, and kissing. This virus spreads faster when an infected person is in the middle of an outbreak. Thirty to ninety percent of adults are seropositive for HSV-1, even though they may never have had a symptom or outbreak. It is also possible to spread HSV-1 if someone who gave someone else oral sex had open sores at the time.

Herpes simplex 2 is shared through any form of sexual contact with a person who has an active HSV-2 infection. Around twenty percent of sexually active adults in the United States are infected with this form of herpes according to the World Health Organization. The WHO also reports that many who are infected with HSV-2 are asymptomatic when they pass on the virus to another. This means that HSV-2 is spreadable even without an outbreak. This form of the virus does not always present with sores.

Risks for Developing Herpes Simplex 1 or 2

The herpes simplex virus does not discriminate between genders, age groups, or cultures. Anyone is at risk for developing herpes solely based on your exposure to the infection. In cases where herpes was spread through sexual contact, people are more at risk if they are having unprotected sex or dangerous, higher-risk situations with multiple partners. Some other risk factors are:

  • being female
  • having sexual intercourse at a younger age
  • having a weakened immune system
  • having another sexually transmitted infection
  • having multiple sexual partners
  • being a pregnant woman with an outbreak at the time of childbirth. This can expose your unborn baby to both types of the virus and put them at even greater risk. If you have herpes and are pregnant, be sure to disclose your HSV status to your doctor to ensure that your baby can be born safely with as little risk as possible.

Signs of Herpes Simplex 1 and 2

Understand that the herpes simplex virus does not only present with sores, and in some cases, sores may never be present. This does not lessen the chance of spreading the virus or mean that you have been cured. That is not an option with this infection. Certain symptoms associated with this virus are:

  • itching
  • pain during urination or just after
  • blistering sores in the mouth or genital area
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • eye issues like herpes keratitis, which can cause eye pain, discharge, and a gritty feeling

Treatment for the Herpes Simplex Virus

Currently, there is no cure for this virus only a plan and course of actions to ease outbreaks and symptoms. After you have been exposed to herpes, you may see your sores coming and going without treatment. This does not mean you do not need treatment, or that you have “lost” the virus. This virus stays with you for life. Treatments commonly used to deal with the symptoms are:

  • valacyclovir
  • famciclovir
  • acyclovir

Medications like these can be helpful to those infected to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to anyone else. These meds may also lower the intensity and frequency of outbreaks and come in pill form or cream form. In severe cases, these medications may be administered with an IV drip or injection.

How to Prevent the Spread of the HSV

There are many measures that one can take to lessen their risk of both becoming infected with this virus and spreading it to others. If you are experiencing an outbreak of the herpes simplex 1 virus, consider these steps to ensure you are being the safest you can be:

  • Do not participate in oral sex, kissing, or any other type of sexual activity during an outbreak.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and apply medication with cotton swabs to reduce contact with sores or consider using rubber gloves with any contact of your infection.
  • Try to avoid direct physical contact with other people.
  • Do not share any items that can pass the virus around, such as cups, towels, silverware, clothing, makeup, or lip balm.

People with herpes simplex 2 should avoid all forms of sexual and intimate activity with others during any outbreak. Condoms should always be used if someone is positive for any form of the herpes virus. Condoms are only good when the sores from the virus are covered. If the condom does not cover the sore that you have, you and your partner are at risk.

Long-term outlook and Cancer Risk with the Herpes Simplex Virus

Those who become infected with the herpes simplex virus will be infected for life, even if they do not show signs of the virus. Certain people will experience regular outbreaks through life, and others may only experience one outbreak, and never see signs again. Even when this virus is dormant and not active, this virus is still there and able to be spread. Certain things can trigger an outbreak. These are some of those things:

  • stress
  • sun exposure and sunburn
  • illness with fever
  • menstrual periods and hormone shifts

Some doctors believe that outbreaks may lessen and become less intense over time because the body adjusts to the virus’ antibodies. If a normally healthy person comes down with this virus, there are not usually any life-threatening complications.

In cases where other things are going on like the human papillomavirus, the chance of becoming infected with herpes is very high. Once infected with both of these, the woman’s risk for developing cervical cancer raises to nearly eighty-percent. More than half of the woman dealing with HPV and herpes are stricken with a cervical, uterine or endometrial cancer in their lifetimes.

If you think you have been exposed to the herpes simplex virus in either form, schedule an appointment with your medical care team or local health officials to get a firm diagnosis and treatment plan. If you or your partner already have a herpes virus, take all of the proper precautions during intimate and sexual acts to ensure you both lessen the risk of spreading the virus further down the line. If you are a pregnant woman dealing with herpes, be open and honest with your doctors about your sexual activity history and status so your baby can be treated immediately.

Resources Used:




Journal of the National Cancer Institute

Reclaiming Intimacy

Back to blog