Is HSV-1 Passed Through Genetics?


HSV-1, or Herpes Simplex virus type 1 is the strain of herpes that commonly causes cold sores. These painful sores are very common in most populations, and they are very easily spread. Starting with a tingling feeling, followed by a hard lump and then a blister (or patch of multiple blisters), they can also be accompanied by feeling generally unwell, especially the first time a person has them. One of the most common questions people ask about herpes is if cold sores can be passed through genetics. Let’s take a look at how HSV-1 spreads and the role that genetics plays in how we react to the virus.


Can the Cold Sore Virus be Passed Through Genetics?

Close up of female lips affected by herpes virus


Yes and no. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1, and this spreads in the same way that many viruses spread; from person to person. So, if you suddenly experience the symptoms of a cold sore, it means you have caught it from someone else who carries the virus. It can be very difficult to work out where you got the cold sore virus from because not every person who passes it on will have obvious symptoms on display. However, you may have got the herpes simplex type 1 virus that caused the cold sores from kissing someone, sharing a drinking glass or eating utensil, sharing a towel, or having other skin to skin contact or contact with something they used. Even more confusingly, you may have had this contact a number of weeks before you began to experience symptoms as the cold sores themselves can take a while to actually develop after you contract the virus.


Can You Be Genetically More Vulnerable to Cold Sores?


Getting cold sores more severely, and having repeated flare ups of the herpes simplex virus type 1 can be passed through genetics. Scientists have been studying the virus and how it affects different people in different ways. Some people will contract the virus that causes cold sores and not have any symptoms. Others may have cold sores as a result. Some will have repeated recurrences of cold sores. 


This happens because the HSV-1 virus does not ever go away, instead it resides in the roots of the nerves and  causes further outbreaks of cold sores. This is more likely to happen when you are feeling unwell, fighting off another infection, under a lot of stress, not sleeping well, or for women, during the menstrual period. However, experts have identified that not everyone is as vulnerable to further outbreaks of cold sores; how susceptible you are to cold sores can in fact come down to your genetic makeup.


Genetic Predisposition to Severe Cold Sores

Vector showing stages of herpes on the lip.


When someone is genetically predisposed to something, it can mean a number of things, it might mean that they have inherited genes from a parent that give them dark hair or blue eyes. It might also mean that they have a mutation in a gene that makes them more likely to develop a particular condition or disease. Scientists have identified six different genes that can affect whether a person is likely to develop severe or repeated bouts of cold sores. We now know that some people are genetically predisposed to suffering from more severe and more frequent outbreaks of cold sores because of a mutation in a gene that means the immune system struggles to fight the herpes simplex virus type 1. This means that a tendency to have recurrences is actually part of their DNA and has been inherited from a parent. Why is this research to identify this genetic predisposition so important? Well for a start, it could help to predict who has had a predisposition passed through genetics that could mean they will suffer more severely. This would enable doctors to prescribe antiviral treatments for those who are most likely to experience a more severe outbreak. Using a targeted antiviral treatment in a timely manner could reduce the severity of the outbreak and shorten the amount of time the cold sores hang around; which is good news for those who suffer!


Environmental Factors


Genetic factors are not the most important aspect of determining whether you will suffer from cold sores. Environmental factors are crucial. We do not know whether we carry the gene that makes us more likely to get cold sores, and scientists warn that even having the gene is only part of the picture; environmental causes of cold sore flare ups are more important than genetic predisposition. So things such as general health, exposure to UV light and wind are just as important (if not more important) than whether you have had a tendency to get cold sores passed through genetics. 


Treating Cold Sores

Woman uses cotton swab with ointment to treat herpes on her lip.


Whether cold sores have occurred because of a simple viral infection alone or because of a genetic mutation that means the body is less able to fight the virus off, the management options are currently the same. First it is important to avoid catching and spreading the herpes simplex virus type 1 that causes cold sores. This means avoiding skin contact with anyone who has symptoms or has had them recently. It also means not sharing items that may have had facial contact. In terms of treatment using antiviral medications can make a huge difference to how severe the outbreak is and how long it lasts. Antiviral medications can come in the form of pills or creams, and doctors may recommend on or the other, or a combination of both. There are also solutions available for purchasing over the counter from pharmacies, such as patches which help to heal the sores and protect the delicate skin while it heals. Preventive measures such as wearing sunscreen, avoiding overexposure to wind and staying healthy and stress-free are also important.


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