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So… I Got Herpes


Well, maybe I should clarify. I did get infected with a virus, but it’s probably not the one that comes to mind when one hears the term “herpes.” There are actually eight different herpes viruses that commonly infect humans, and only two of them are categorized as sexually transmitted diseases. I caught one of the other six called the Epstein-Barr Virus, which is the most common root cause of mononucleosis.

Just a few weeks into the fall semester, I developed a persistent sore throat and general fatigue. After a trip to the doctor and a blood test, my physician diagnosed me with mononucleosis due to an active viral infection. I was completely shocked. I’m careful about sharing drinks, and my boyfriend lives across the country, so I’m not smooching anybody. How could I get mono?

A few days later, I was sick as a dog. I spent most of my days in bed and felt like a zombie whenever I wasn’t sleeping. I slept for 12 hours every night and usually crawled back to bed after only a couple hours of wakefulness. My sore throat faded after a week or so, but the heavy fatigue stayed with me for over a month, and I didn’t regain full energy until weeks after that.

During the hours I spent curled up on the couch, I started researching the tiny organism that was making me miserable – and trying to figure out who got me sick. As it turns out, the Epstein-Barr Virus isn’t just spread through kissing. A person can become infected simply by using an improperly washed fork at a restaurant.  


Representation of Epstein-Barr Virus structure. The viral envelope encloses genetic material and docks onto host cells. Receptors allow host-specific attachment. Public domain image.

Once inside the host, EBV’s structure allows the virus to reproduce by hijacking host cellular machinery.  The outer layer, or envelope,  is covered in specific attachment sites so the virus can “dock” onto a host cell. After docking, the virus fuses with the host cell so it can deliver genetic material – either DNA or RNA – into the cell. The genetic material reprograms the host cell to produce viruses. The new viruses are then released and travel to spread the infection.


An Example of a Viral Infection – Influenza. The host cell is reprogrammed via the virus’s genetic material to create new viruses.

With the comforting knowledge that an army of microscopic robot parasites was inside me, I looked into the specifics of EBV. The virus has an incubation period of about 4-7 weeks, during which the virus is inactive, or “latent” before becoming infectious. Thinking back on the past months, I realized that I visited my boyfriend 5 weeks before I tested positive for EBV. I had my suspect!

Despite the new lead, I knew my theory had a few potential downfalls – if my guy got sick too, there would be no telling who was infected first. But, if he didn’t get sick, I would have to envy his ridiculously good immune system and/or face an endless parade of jokes about how I had been swapping saliva with somebody else.

Time went by, and my boyfriend never got sick. I was doubly happy – he was healthy, and my case was getting better. I just needed to determine how my boyfriend could pass the virus to me without ever getting sick.


Lets hope all your dishes are squeaky clean! Image courtesy of Flickr.

Throughout my research, I learned that the Epstein-Barr Virus infects most people during their lifetime. Typically, however, only certain adolescents and some adults will develop a full-blown case of mononucleosis. After the infection runs its course, the virus becomes dormant, although it will never leave the host’s system. Interestingly, the virus can also become active again later in life. In this case, the host is contagious but asymptomatic… “That’s it!” I thought. My boyfriend could have infected me if he previously caught the virus and it reactivated.

If I was correct, my boyfriend would have been introduced to the virus as a child, when he probably wouldn’t have developed full mononucleosis. That’s not unlikely, because 95% of people will be infected at some point in their life. Wracking my brain, I remembered a conversation about my boyfriend’s father, who had an awful case of mononucleosis in high school. Theoretically, the reactivated virus could have been passed onto his son through a shared drink or a kiss goodnight. Because my guy was young, it’s likely he would have only suffered a fever, if anything, and wouldn’t have been diagnosed. Fast forward a few years, the virus becomes active, and BOOM! I’m down for the count.

Now, you may be noticing some potential holes in my theory. It’s possible that I picked up EBV from another source. It’s also very possible that I’m only half right, and my boyfriend was infected by somebody other than his dad. EBV is tricky, and there are still many components yet to be fully explored. Regardless, I’m willing to stick with my theory. Can I ever prove that my boyfriend gave the virus to me? No. Am I going to blame him and always remind him about the time he “gave me herpes?” Absolutely.

(header image source)

About the author:

Amanda Piehler is an undergraduate at UGA double-majoring in Biology and Science Education. When she’s not adventuring in academia, you can find her dancing, running, cooking, SCUBA diving, or hiding out in a local theatre. Connect with her on Facebook or email her at apiehler@uga.edu! More from Amanda Piehler.

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