The stigma of herpes is long reaching. One of those quiet Sexual Transmitted Diseases, (STDs), that rarely gets talked about, this lack of communication and knowledge about the virus can lead many people to wonder what long term effects it can have on their body, health and yes even, their ability to have children in the future.
Herpes and fertility have been studied thoroughly and with good results. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that “during 2015–2016, prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) was 47.8%, and prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) was 11.9%,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A whopping 60% are symptom free, which means they have no idea that they have it, nor that they can pass it onto their partner. The good news is that if they don’t know they have it, they are likely not having outbreaks. Outbreaks are the time when the virus can be passed to others. Even if the outbreaks are on the cervix and cannot be seen, they can cause symptoms such as pelvic pain and burning. There are two types of HSV: HSV1 and HSV2. One causes oral fever blisters in most cases. However, these subtypes can affect any area. So, do not allow receptive oral sex from someone with a fever blister. Otherwise, you could end up with HSV1 or 2 of the genitals. Outbreaks tend to get less and less severe as time goes on, and for some, they stop completely.
This can leave a large percentage of the population fighting a virus they are unaware of. Which leads us back to our initial question: Can herpes affect your fertility?
Herpes and Female Fertility
Most experts agree that the answer is a resounding NO. While yes, herpes is a virus that affects the genital area (the vulva and vagina in women and the penis in men), it does not seem to cross over into other reproductive areas and has little if any effect on a man’s sperm production nor a woman’s ability to conceive. It does offer its own unique problems however when it comes to conception and pregnancy.
No, herpes doesn’t impede conception but it makes it more difficult in one respect: the fact that during an outbreak partners are encouraged to steer clear of close intimate contact, which could limit your “availability” during the most crucial baby-making time of the month. Still, most outbreaks are relatively short lived and a couple with active herpes should be able to try again to conceive within a month or two once all signs of lesions have dissipated.
Commonly characterized by its tell-tale blisters and burning and itching in the genital area, I need to share a quick not about diagnosis. In an interview with the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), Herpes expert Terri Warren, RN, ANP, shares that a swab test, laboratory blood test, and physical exam are necessary for proper diagnosis of Herpes because studies show that even sexual health experts using visual diagnosis alone are wrong 20% of the time.
Back to fertility impact, the herpes simplex virus is easily transmitted from partner to partner during an outbreak, and therefore could be transmitted to a baby during delivery should an outbreak occur. Under these circumstances, most obstetricians would encourage the mother to undergo a caesarean section just to safeguard the baby’s health. Others argue that that precaution isn’t even necessary.
Still, when no open lesions are present, it is agreed that a completely natural vaginal birth can take place with no ill effects to either mother or baby. As a matter of fact, research has shown that a mother with herpes has antibodies in her blood which the baby receives during the course of the pregnancy that helps to protect the baby from getting the virus even if it comes in contact with herpes either in the womb or during the delivery process.
There are two exceptions to this finding however, that could harm a fetus, thus causing a miscarriage or stillbirth:
- When the first herpes episode is experienced in the first trimester of pregnancy. In this instance, the virus may be too strong, thus causing a miscarriage.
- When the first herpes episode is experienced in the third trimester of pregnancy. In this case, the baby has not had the time to develop the proper antibodies and resistance to the virus, in which case neonatal herpes may develop, which can result in infant death.
Of course these two scenarios would mean that the herpes virus was contracted during the pregnancy. For women already suffering with herpes at the time of conception, those scenarios would be impossible.
Herpes and Male Fertility
When it comes to men and herpes, there seems to be risk to sperm count, thereby impacting a man’s fertility. One 2013 study out of Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran, researchers 70 semen samples from infertile men to analyze, comparing semen parameters between sample infected by the virus and non-infected samples. The study concluded that “Semen analysis showed that infertile men fell into two groups, the male factor group and the unexplained group. HSV-1 and HSV-2 DNA was detected in 16 (22.9%) and 10 (14.3%) of 70 semen samples, respectively. All HSV-positive samples had abnormal semen parameters (the male factor group). Although HSV infection was not associated with sperm motility and morphological defects, it was correlated with lower sperm count in the seminal fluid.”
HSV2 DNA has also been detected in the semen of men during herpes recurrence (Sex Transm Dis. 1999 Jan.)
Another concern however (for both partners) is that the herpes virus is just one of many STD’s that usually is contracted together such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. For instance, it is rare to contract herpes alone and not another STD with it; and those other STD’s may indeed have a direct impact on your fertility and pregnancy outcome.
So, what’s the lesson here? If you have herpes, get checked for other STD’s to make sure they are not what is standing in your way of a pregnancy; and when you do have herpes talk openly with your doctor about all of the things you can do to protect your baby both in the uterus and during delivery. Generally speaking, however, herpes has little effect on a couple’s fertility and in most cases does not pose any real threat to a pregnancy.
- Online Health Forum of Medical Questions Answered Free – eHealth Forum. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://ehealthforum.com/healthcenter/herpes/the_herpes_virus-e117.html
- McQuillan, G., Kruszon-Moran, D., Flagg, E.W. and Paulose-Ram, R. (February 2018). Prevalence of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 in Persons Aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016. National Centers for Health Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db304.htm
- Health Information Organization Home Page – pain, nutrition, pregnancy, homeopathy, infertility, acupuncture, traditional chinese medicine, menopause, Men’s Health, male reproductive health, andrology, chinese herbal medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://health-info.org/
- ASHA Herpes Resource Center Home – American Sexual Health Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/
- Monavari, S. H., Vaziri, M. S., Khalili, M., Shamsi-Shahrabadi, M., Keyvani, H., Mollaei, H., & Fazlalipour, M. (2012). Asymptomatic seminal infection of herpes simplex virus: impact on male infertility. Journal of biomedical research, 27(1), 56-61. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3596154/
- Wald, A., Matson, P., Ryncarz, A. and Corey, L. (199, Jan.). Detection of herpes simplex virus DNA in semen of men with genital HSV-2 infection. Sex Transm Dis. 26(1):1-3. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9918316