A new study suggests that teens who are sexually active may have less protection against herpes infection than previous generations. So, we have to wonder, what’s changed?
The study, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, looked at two groups of teenagers—those who were 14 to 19 years old between 2005 and 2010, and those who were the same ages between 1999 and 2004. It found that fewer teens in the more recent group (30 percent) had antibodies to herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1), one of the two strains of the herpes virus that can cause genital infections, compared to the older group of teens (39 percent). This could leave them more vulnerable to infection.
For many years, it was thought that HSV-1 caused oral herpes infections, which most often presents as cold sores on the lips, and that genital infections were caused by herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), but this has changed over time, possibly as a result of an increase in oral sex.
This may be pretty problematic for today’s teens because, as the new study suggests, they have not built up any protection to this virus as a result of better, more hygienic living conditions.
HSV-1 is transmitted through saliva and skin-to-skin contact. Researchers think that in the past young people were exposed to the virus as kids and therefore able to build up antibodies that could protect them if they were exposed to it again once they became sexually active. The researchers believe that the lack of antibodies coupled with the increase in oral sex is a recipe for more genital herpes infections in the future.
The researchers say their results point to a need for increased monitoring “to better understand the changing epidemiology of the disease, and inform vaccine development.”
Other experts add that the results highlight the importance of prevention, like using condoms or dental dams during oral sex and/or intercourse. What’s more, there are even flavored condoms made specifically for oral sex, to help prevent the spread of diseases like herpes.