Does Herpes Weaken Your Immune System?

Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
21st November 2020

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In 30 seconds

Does herpes weaken your immune system? The answer is not as easy as a simple yes or no. Rather, there is evidence to suggest both that herpesviruses can boost your immune system in specific ways and cause it to become dysfunctional.

Why? Herpes is not just one single disease. Rather, herpesviruses – which cause cold sores, genital herpes, chickenpox, shingles, and even cancer – are a complex group of viruses. These pose a unique challenge for your immune system, giving them their familiar cycle of latency and reactivation which sees them disappear and return. In some cases, your body never deals with them fully.

While they can pose serious problems for your immune response, there is no evidence that herpes weakens your immune system in the long run. However, scientists are yet to fully understand exactly how these viruses work.

Does Herpes Weaken Your Immune System?

From cold sores to genital herpes, the herpesvirus is a very complex – and a very clever – little virus, that is responsible for many different symptoms and conditions. However, as viruses go, it is not one that we yet fully understand.

This is largely down to the unique effect it seems to have on our immune system. According to some estimates, two thirds of the world’s population has one of the forms of the herpes simplex virus, as herpes is technically known. And while the majority are asymptomatic, those who do have symptoms don’t experience them all the time.

While the relation between the virus and your immune response is fairly unusual, does herpes weaken your immune system? Not as such. Here, we’re going to talk you through some of the research into herpes and the immune system – from the ways it boosts our immune response to how it undermines it too. As a result, you’ll realise it’s not a question with a very simple answer. 

What is Herpes?

Herpes is a virus that is hugely common among humans across the world – and that produces a wide variety of different symptoms and conditions. These include blister-like sores around the mouth or genital area, chickenpox and shingles, and even cancer.

It might seem strange that so many possible conditions can result from the same virus. Yet, this is because there is actually no single herpes virus. Rather, there are about eight or nine.

The first of these are the most famous. These are known as herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), which are those that lead to oral and genital herpes – the blisters that can be seen around the mouth and genitals. While painful, these tend to clear up after 10 days or so – although the virus itself stays in your body usually for the rest of your life.

The others go under a slightly different grouping: human herpes virus. However, the individual viruses themselves are known by specific names too: Varicella-Zoster virus (HHV-3), Epstein-Barr virus (HHV-4), and cytomegalovirus (CMV, or HHV-5). These are the ones that have the more significant consequences.

All of these and more make up the group of pathogens we refer to as herpes – and each demands a different antiviral response. This makes life pretty hard for the human immune system. However, as we will see, there is not really any evidence that herpes weakens your immune system in the long run.

The Immune System vs Herpes

The immune system is your body’s defence against bacteria, fungi, toxins, and viral infections. Involving an array of organs, cells, proteins, and tissues, it battles these different foreign bodies that may cause you disease or harm. And it’s doing this all the time: everything you eat or touch is targeted and controlled by your immune system.

Usually, when a virus enters your body, it infects cells. As a response, your T cells – a crucial part of your immune system – identify, bind to, and destroy the cells that are infected. However, with a herpes infection, things are a little trickier. This is because, when herpesviruses infect specific cells, they prevent these cells from realising that they have been infected. This way they hide and, in a way, go to sleep. As a result, the virus can avoid detection by your immune system.

This is how the virus can stay in your system for so long. It may be there in your body, but it isn’t causing any trouble most of the time. It is only when it moves from latency – i.e. that sleep – to its activation phase that things kick off. For example, when you are stressed, tired, or weakened, your cold sore appears, you become contagious, and your immune system tries to kill the virus.

Usually, it doesn’t succeed – and the herpes and your immune system end up in a sort of equilibrium, as the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research explains.

Research into Herpes and the Immune System

While we know that the battle between the herpesviruses and your immune system can be long, what is less clear is whether herpes has an impact in the long run on the health of your immune system and the strength of its immune response. 

The research into herpes and the immune system is broad and complex. And, in some cases, it shows seemingly contradictory results. Let’s take a look at some of the recent developments in the field.

Does Herpes Cause a Weakened Immune System?

There is evidence, for example, that one form of herpes – the cytomegalovirus (CMV) – may impair your immune response. CMV is one of the more common forms of herpesvirus, but it does not cause symptoms we usually associate with that condition. Rather, it mainly affects babies, who can suffer developmental delay as well as problems with sight and hearing. 

According to one study, latent CMV may cause your body to be less able to fight off other infections – due to the fact that it is just too busy tackling this virus.

Yet, there is a problem here. Research suggests that 50-90% of us have the virus latent within us throughout the course of our lives. This means that its actual effects are much more difficult to ascertain, as everyone’s immune system is fighting the virus to a degree.

Does Herpes Actually Boost Your Immune System?

On the other hand, research has suggested that herpes may even have surprise benefits for your body. One study, for example, found that although herpes obviously can cause serious symptoms, they may actually strengthen your immune system at large.

Why? The research suggests that when herpes is latent within your body – which may be for life – your immune system develops resistance to other pathogens, including Listeria and the plague. This is because the presence of the virus boosts your immune response, which becomes more active in tackling other infections.

This is important – as it could explain why your body is, in most cases, happy to live in peace with herpes. Rather than merely harm, the virus may bring benefits overall.

Does Herpes Cause Auto-Immune Disease?

Another study looked into the relation between certain herpesviruses and auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Auto-immune diseases are diseases in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body. The study linked these diseases to a specific strain of herpesvirus known as the Epstein-Barr virus. 

This link has not yet been fully confirmed. And it is important to note that this is not the virus that causes genital and oral herpes.

What Effect Does Herpes Have on Immuno-Compromised People?

While there is no hard, confirmed evidence of the precise effect of herpes on your immune system, what we do know is that the herpes family of viruses do pose a much greater risk to those people with compromised immune systems.

In people with immune deficiencies – caused by diseases such as AIDS or HIV or by chemotherapy – infections with HSVs can lead to prolonged and severe periods of active genital or oral herpes. Other herpesviruses such as CMV can cause severe diseases such as meningitis and hepatitis in immuno-compromised people too.

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Key Takeaways

So, does herpes weaken your immune system? To cut a long story short, we just don’t have the information to give a clear answer. The relationship between herpes and the immune system is very complicated – and scientists are yet to understand it fully.

While there is evidence to suggest that your immune system may be impaired by the presence of certain herpesviruses – such as CMV – other studies show that the viruses might boost your immunity in the long run.

Unless you are immunodeficient, your immunity should manage to deal with genital and oral herpes to ensure that you won’t be contagious – or in discomfort – for long. However, you will be living with the infection for life, and that’s only because the majority of us are. 

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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