Health

No, the COVID-19 Vaccine Will Not Give You Herpes

Headlines and social media posts spread misleading claims this week about the COVID-19 vaccines and herpes. Specifically, posts and articles (like this one from the New York Post) imply that some people developed herpes after getting their shots. But there are a lot of problems with these claims, including the fact that the study they’re referencing was actually about herpes zoster—also called shingles—rather than genital herpes infections.

The claims originally stem from a study published in Rheumatology last week that looked at 491 people who have autoimmune inflammatory rheumatic diseases (AIIRD) and received the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as well as 99 control participants who received the vaccine but do not have AIIRD. The researchers detected six cases of shingles (also called herpes zoster) among those with AIIRD but did not find any cases among the controls. The participants in the study who developed shingles had underlying conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, and undifferentiated connective tissue disorder

Although this study doesn’t totally confirm that the vaccine can lead to shingles, the researchers say that, based on their data, getting the vaccine could trigger shingles in people who have underlying conditions that affect their immune system. So this is an area that could probably use more study, they say. However, the study doesn’t suggest there’s a large possibility for the vaccine to trigger shingles in the general population, and it definitely doesn’t say anything about the vaccine and genital herpes.

So the confusion seems to be coming from the name of this condition: shingles, aka herpes zoster. Shingles is a painful condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Essentially what happens is that, after someone gets chickenpox, that virus stays dormant in the nerves of their body. Under certain conditions, the virus can be reactivated, which then causes shingles. On the other hand, herpes (the STI) is caused by the herpes simplex virus

Researchers don’t totally understand why some people who’ve had chickenpox develop shingles and others don’t. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that taking immunosuppressive medications or having other conditions that tax the immune system (such as leukemia) make shingles more likely. Experiencing chronic stress or one highly stressful event may also contribute to that, SELF explained previously.

So this panic over possible herpes infections related to the COVID-19 vaccine is not a result of actual science, but rather a result of the stigma surrounding herpes and STIs in general—and ambiguous headlines that prey on that stigma. Herpes is common in the U.S.; about 12% of adults in the country have HSV-2, the virus that causes most cases of genital herpes, according to CDC data, and about half of all adults have HSV-1, which mostly causes oral herpes but can also cause genital herpes. 

Society tends to portray people who have herpes as dirty or irresponsible. But the truth is that herpes often doesn’t cause any symptoms, herpes can be managed so that people who have it can have sex safely (communication with potential partners is key, of course), and you can get herpes even if you do everything “right” with regards to safer sex practices. The stigma around this viral infection doesn’t make people safer, but it does make them feel awful—and it contributes to unnecessary panics like this one, which continue to fuel the cycle of shame and fear.

So, no, the COVID-19 vaccine won’t give you herpes. But bad headlines and social media panic could spread something much worse.

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