Herpes is a virus. The herpes virus can barely be considered alive. It is composed of viral DNA wrapped in a protein shell. On its own, a herpes virus cannot reproduce or do much of anything—until it infects us. When the herpes virus comes in contact with areas that are receptive, like the genitals or mouth, the virus invades the epithelial cells (skin cells) in that region. Then, the DNA of the herpes virus is released into the skin cell. At that point, the virus takes over the cell.
It directs the cell to make more herpes virus and, when they have made enough copies to damage the cell so severely that it bursts, millions of the newly formed viruses are released infecting more cells, eventually causing an ulcer.
That is what people can see and feel, but a good deal more than that happens. While it is infecting skin cells and causing pain and ulcers, it also begins to attack the nerve cells in the same area. When the virus enters the nerve cell, it not only reproduces but it moves up the nerve to a bundle of nerves in the back called the sacral plexus. Once it is in the nerves, it is essentially protected from being attacked by the body’s immune system. Nerve cells can never be replaced.
That is why when nerves in the spine are damaged people become paralyzed. Since nerves cannot reproduce themselves easily, the body is careful not to bombard them with all the weapons it has to clear infections. All the inflammation that is caused by the battle to eliminate infections elsewhere would be disastrous if that occurred with nerves. There is no sense clearing an infection if nerve cells that could never be replaced are destroyed in the process.
The herpes virus is essentially protected from an attack by our immune system as long as it hides out in the nerves of the sacral plexus when it affects the genitals, or the “dorsal root ganglion” (a cluster of nerves in the neck region of the spine) when it infects the mouth.
Unfortunately, that leaves the virus in a perfect position to sneak back out when the immune system is suppressed in any way. That is how the virus is able to cause recurrent infections, especially during times of stress, illness, or any condition or circumstance that makes our immune system less vigilant.
This information is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.