What if herpes is untreated?
While it's not necessary to treat herpes that is mild or asymptomatic, there's a chance that undiagnosed and untreated herpes can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of suffering from encephalitis (progressive inflammation of the brain). According to a 2010 study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases Medical Journal, about 19% of percent people with encephalitis were also infected with herpes.
In rare cases, other serious complications from herpes include meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord); eczema herpetiform (widespread herpes across the skin, resembling smallpox); as well as eye infections, pneumonia and other health problems. That's why getting tested is so important.
Herpes and HIV
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with herpes are two to three times more likely to get HIV if exposed, and vice versa...in particular, genital sores or lesions allow these viruses to more easily enter the body upon contact.
In general, someone who has one STD is at greater risk for infection with other STDs, including HIV. That's because STDs that cause ulcers, sores, or otherwise break the skin or mucous membranes make carriers more susceptible to infection...also, someone with one or more STDs may have a weakened immune system that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases.
Herpes and pregnancy
Pregnant women with herpes may transmit the virus to their baby, particularly if their initial herpes outbreak occurs near delivery...in these cases, it's best to perform a cesarean delivery.
While herpes in newborns is rare, the disease can have devastating effects in infants. If a pregnant woman is infected with genital herpes before the third trimester, or pre-pregnancy, and there are no outbreak symptoms, vaginal delivery is generally safe...according to the CDC, the risk of your baby is less than 1%. But if you're newly infected with herpes, or if symptoms are present when your water breaks or during labor, you'll definitely need a cesarean delivery.
Note: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women with recurrent genital herpes take oral antiviral medication from about 36 weeks until delivery...this reduces the possibility of a herpes outbreak during labor.
If you're pregnant and concerned about herpes, be sure to consult your regular doctor.
Last reviewed by Medical Director Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.
Lisa Oldson, MD
Medical Director, Analyte Physicians Group
"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."