Would a person infected with herpes succumb to the disease? Or, in other words, can you die from herpes? No. You can’t die from herpes. However, having herpes can increase your risk of getting infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes AIDS.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tells us more about the link between herpes and HIV:
Genital herpes can cause sores or breaks in the skin or lining of the mouth, vagina, and rectum. The genital sores caused by herpes can bleed easily. When the sores come into contact with the mouth, vagina, or rectum during sex, they increase the risk of giving or getting HIV if you or your partner has HIV.
So does any type of herpes increase the risk of HIV infection? No, this increased risk is evident only with herpes simplex virus 2 (or HSV-2) and not HSV-1. Dr. Peter A. Leone, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and Public Health, tells us more in this interview with the New York Times:
Q: People are more worried about getting H.I.V./AIDS than genital herpes. Should we be paying more attention to herpes?
A: H.I.V./AIDS is viewed as a lethal disease, and herpes isn’t, so many have ignored it. The reason why we should focus on herpes now is that the relationship between herpes and H.I.V. is significant. Although people don’t die from herpes, there is a synergy between these two infections. If a person has genital herpes due to the herpes type 2 virus, their risk of acquiring H.I.V. is much higher than if they didn’t have herpes. And a person who has both H.I.V. and herpes 2 is more likely to transmit both infections.
These two epidemics are linked, and because herpes has been pushed to the side, we haven’t paid enough attention to it. There are 60 million adults in the United States alone who have herpes, and we have a million new cases a year. It’s a big epidemic.
Q:The herpes 2 virus is the main cause of genital outbreaks, but many infections are now being caused by herpes 1. How dangerous is a virus that typically causes harmless cold sores around the mouth?
A: Herpes type 1 is not associated with H.I.V. acquisition. The reason is that these viruses sort of adapt to each site, so herpes 1 is more likely to shed around the mouth and not as likely as to reactivate in the genital tract. Herpes type 2, on the other hand, is much more likely to shed and reactivate in the genital tract. As a result, there’s more of a risk of co-infection with H.I.V. from herpes 2.
Now, aside from increasing the risk of HIV/AIDS, herpes can also travel to the brain and cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), a dangerous infection that can lead to death.
Just how deadly is a herpes-caused encephalitis? This NY Times Health Guide gives us some sobering figures:
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is the most common cause of encephalitis in developed countries and is responsible for about 10 – 20% of all adult cases of viral encephalitis. There are two distinct types of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 (commonly associated with oral herpes) and HSV-2 (which usually causes genital herpes, although HSV-1 can also cause this form). HSV-2 causes 70 – 90% of encephalitis cases in neonatal infants; the virus is transmitted through the mother’s genital secretions. Although HSV-1 is the primary culprit in most adult cases of herpes encephalitis, HSV-2 may also cause a small number of these cases.
Herpes simplex encephalitis is the only effectively treatable form of encephalitis, but treatment (typically intravenous acyclovir) must be administered within the first few days of symptom onset. If left untreated, the mortality rate for patients with HSV-1 is about 70%; if treated, the mortality rate declines to 30%. The mortality rate for neonatal HSV-2 encephalitis ranges from 15 – 57%.
In ending, let’s summarize the points above:
- Herpes itself does not cause death.
- However, herpes can increase your risk of HIV infection which can lead to death.
- Moreover, herpes can also travel to the brain and cause encephalitis which is deadly when left untreated.
Related: Celebrities With Herpes.