You might have seen Justin Bieber’s face in the news recently. His little boyish face right there, giant on my TV in a lovely super-up-close shot showing that he had facial paralysis on one side. Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome, they said. Ah yeess. I thought. The classic. Ramsay-Hunt syndrome is one of those things medical school exams love. If Bieber had been in one of our hospitals whilst I was on ENT (ear, nose and throat) then the consultants would’ve for sure sent us his way to get a full history and examine him.
Ramsay-Hunt syndrome happens when your Varicella Zoster virus, the chickenpox virus, reactivates and gives you shingles. Usually shingles aren’t that much of a big deal, apart from being horrifically painful. But when shingles happens in your ear, nasty things happen. The nerve that supplies the ability to move your face runs via the ear. And when this nerve gets inflamed or infected, it can stop working. Hence you stop being able to move your face.
The thing the news consistently failed to mention, is that this is a Herpes virus. Bieber had ear herpes. And this whole thing reminded me of my simmering desire to right a blog about the fact that WE’VE ALL GOT HERPES.
It severely pisses me off when people act all YUCK I DON’T HAVE HERPES, when I’m sorry but you almost certainly have herpes.
It takes me back to my early uni days, where after having a bit of soreness in the vulva I’d gone on an internet searching spree about herpes. I scrubbed up my knowledge, and ever since then I’ve loved learning about herpes viruses. They’re just fascinating, and we’ve all got them.
Anyway, I was trying to explain the fact that we’ve all got herpes to this incredibly posh woman who was in my house. She was more keen on explaining to me in an incredibly patronising way that straightening my hair is ‘bad for it’. Mate, I don’t give a shit, it’s keratin.
She just wouldn’t believe it. She couldn’t. ‘I DON’T THEY’VE TESTED ME FOR EVERYTHING THERE’S NO WAY LITERALLY NO WAY I COULD HAVE IT,’ she bleated. It may have had something to do with the fact I was having this conversation with her in front of somebody I suspect she wanted to mate with. They don’t routinely test for herpes, I said. Unless you’ve got symptoms. Because what’s the point of knowing when everyone has it? If you’ve got sores, they’ll usually give them a swab to see what’s there (via PCR). But the blood test isn’t that useful and doesn’t tell you that the sore you might have is even related to herpes, since you’re so likely to have herpes antibodies in your blood anyway.
The fact is, 90%* of us carry the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This is the virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. There’re two different types, HSV type 1 is more associated with cold sores, and HSV type 2 is more associated with genital ulcers, but there’s considerable overlap. You can get either virus at either end of your bod. A lot of us would’ve caught HSV type 1 very early on in life, from being kissed by your mum, for example. Others will have been exposed to it during their first sexual experience. It just depends.
In the vast majority, the virus doesn’t do much as all. It simply infected your cells, goes along your nerves, sets up camp there. And silently, it sheds viruses very slowly in a way that spreads the virus.
Some of us are super unlucky, and the virus has an absolute relentless rave/ party and leads to ulceration. Sometimes severe. For these people, the amount of viral shedding, and therefore likelihood of spreading the disease is higher.
But I want to be totally brazened and direct about one thing. There is nothing dirty about this. There is no yuck. There should be only sympathy for people who suffer from cold sores and genital herpes. Because WE’VE ALL GOT HERPES, and they just had the terrible misfortune to get symptoms. Remember, if you’ve ever judged somebody for having herpes, that you also almost definitely have herpes too.
Bieber’s varicella virus is another type of herpes virus. As is the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever. I’ve had an Epstein-Barr virus in a spate of fairly minging glandular fever, so I’ve definitely got herpes.
I feel like we should all be more open about the fact we’re riddled with viruses. In fact, when you look at our genome, it’s littered with the fossils of hundreds of thousands of viruses. And of course we’re also caked in bacteria. I feel like we need to embrace the fact we exist within a microbial world. And let’s not judge people for what viruses that have in their ears, face or front bottoms. It’s natural and we’ve all got it. Let’s talk about it more, get help when we need to, and of course, get that all-important smear test**.
Everyone, sing it with me. WE’VE ALL GOT HERPES.
*ref: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11930310/ estimates vary
**The human papilloma test that the smear test looks for isn’t a herpes virus, but I just wanted to drop in a reminder to us to get our smear tests 😊