Can the herpes virus remain dormant for a period of up to 30 years before any symptoms are evident?
My wife was recently diagnosed with HSV-2 after showing typical blistering in the vaginal area and having both blood and swab tests. Her physician prescribed Valtrex for treatment. We have been in a monogamous relationship for over 30 years and neither of us have had any visual symptoms in the past. She did have a similar occurrence about a year ago but tested negative. Her symptoms came in conjunction with several menstrual cycle problems and several yeast infections, all of which have been treated by her physician. I plan on getting tested, and believe that I’ll most likely test positive. Her doctor told her that he has never witnessed the virus being dormant for more than 12 years. This has caused her to doubt my faithfulness in the relationship, which I understand under the circumstances. I do not doubt her faithfulness at all. I could easily accept the fact that I (or she, for that matter) was infected prior to our marriage over 30 years ago and never knew...can the herpes virus remain dormant for that long before showing symptoms?
Lisa Oldson, MD on October 5, 2011
Thanks for your question. This is a confusing situation so it’s certainly understandable that both you and your wife have questions. I’ll try to help with some information to get you started...
First, it’s great that your wife was tested for herpes to confirm the cause of her blisters in the vaginal area. It was also smart for her to have both a swab test (which can only be done on open sores at a doctor’s office) and a blood test. Being vigilant about monitoring your body is important to one’s sexual health and overall health.
Also, keep in mind that the herpes simplex virus acts differently in each individual. Although many people with HSV-2 do have recurring symptoms sooner than 30 years, other research by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene indicates that as many as 88% of people who are positive for HSV-2 don’t have any idea that they’re infection.
In other words, it’s possible that one or both of you were unknowingly infected with HSV-2 at the start of your sexual relationship. And, if so, it’s hard to know why your wife’s infection would show visible signs and symptoms now...in fact, researchers are still learning about what causes recurring herpes outbreaks. But some research, like this study from the University of Washington, indicates that stress may be a factor. In other words, it’s possible that the other health issues your wife was experiencing may have caused stress and/or anxiety...which, in turn, contributed to an outbreak at this time.
Another factor that might useful for you to know...
Did your wife have a type-specific herpes antibody test? In other words, was she tested for both HSV-2 and HSV-1? I ask because people who have an existing HSV-1 infection when they contract HSV-2 are nearly three times more likely not to have symptoms than people who don’t have HSV-1.
And, just so you know, HSV-1 typically causes cold sores (fever blisters) around the mouth...so if she’s ever noticed a cold sore, it’s possible that an HSV-1 infection decreases the chances of her from having many HSV-2 outbreaks.
With this in mind, I encourage you to get tested for herpes 1 and 2. You’ll get the best information about your herpes status with a herpes simplex virus type-specific HSV-1/2 IgG blood test (also called HSV 1/2 IgG). The test will confirm whether you have the infection as well.
You’re right, after 30 years together, the odds of you also having herpes is high...but even so, you may benefit from medication, too. And if turns out that you don’t have herpes, you can take steps to protect yourself.
I hope that I’ve been able to help answer your concern about HSV-2 infection. If you have other questions about herpes transmission, symptoms and testing, you might want to check out our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2...and, of course, consult your doctor.
Thanks again for writing, and I wish you and your wife good health and peace of mind.
- CDC: Genital Herpes
- The New England Journal of Medicine: A Prospective Study of New Infections with Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.