Herpes & HIV

Instructor: Christie Spadafora

Christie has a B.S. and an M.S. in Biology. She teaches life and chemical science courses at college, high school, and middle school levels in MA.

HIV and Herpes are both viral, sexually-transmitted diseases. This lesson will give an overview of both HIV and Herpes, comparing and contrasting the two viruses.

Meet the Ninjas: Herpes and HIV Viruses

Viruses are incredibly tiny. They are measured in nanometers (1 nanometer = 1 billionth of a meter), and can only be seen with a powerful microscope. Both human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the germs that cause herpes are viruses. All viruses - whether HIV, herpes, or otherwise - are like tiny ninjas. They use sneaky ways to invade your cells and cause all sorts of symptoms. Let's learn a bit more about HIV and herpes - two of the sneakiest ninjas around.

Structure and Infection

Viruses are typically made of just a small amount of genetic material (DNA or RNA) that is surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid. HIV is composed of RNA within a capsid. HIV also has a membrane made out of lipids surrounding its capsid.

HIV structure
HIV Virus Structure

Herpes viruses are similar to HIV viruses. They have capsids and lipid membranes. However, Herpes viruses have DNA within their capsids, instead of RNA. There are several forms of both HIV viruses and herpes viruses, each of which have slightly different characteristics, infectivity, and associated symptoms.

Herpes virus structure
Herpes structure

Just as ninjas have many tricks up their sleeves, HIV and herpes have evolved many ways to spread from person to person. Both HIV and herpes are sexually transmitted diseases, so they can be transmitted during sex. One version of herpes virus can also transmitted via kissing, while it is more difficult to spread HIV in this way (bleeding gums or sores in both partners could allow HIV to be transmitted through blood in the mouth). HIV is able to survive on non-living surfaces for a longer period of time than herpes, so contaminated needles are of concern when it comes to HIV transmission. As no cure yet exists for either virus, it is important to understand all of the ways in which these diseases can be transmitted.


Once a person acquires a herpes or HIV infection, it will be with that person for the rest of his or her life. Many people have herpes but don't even know it. Herpes ninjas can be so sneaky, that a person can live symptom free, or have mild symptoms that go unnoticed. If an infected person does experience symptoms, the symptoms could include painful, fluid-filled sores on the skin, and/or flu-like symptoms. Herpes viruses live in a person's nerve cells, and can lie dormant, or hide, in the nerve cells for long periods of time between breakouts, or periods of time when skin sores appear.

Herpes sore
Herpes Sore

Similarly, people who have been recently infected with HIV might not notice any symptoms. As the infection progresses, HIV ninjas work by inserting their genetic material into the genetic material of human immune system cells. The virus's genetic material can lie dormant in many immune cells this way, while it continues to spread throughout the immune system. As HIV continues to infect immune cells, a person's immune system will become weaker and weaker, causing the person to succumb to many other infections.

Life with herpes will vary from person to person, but could include numerous outbreaks, or no outbreaks at all. People with herpes should take care to prevent transmission to others. This includes limiting physical contact (kissing, sex) during outbreaks, and using condoms during sex. However, it is worth noting that herpes could be present on skin that is not covered by a condom, and thus can still be transmitted even if a condom is used during sex.

Life with HIV will almost always, except in rare instances, lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. When a person has AIDS, he or she has lost numerous immune cells due to HIV infection, rendering his or her immune response very low, and leading to several other complications. This makes many other infections, like respiratory and eye infections, easy to acquire and hard to fight off. This is where the virus gets its name - human immunodeficiency virus.

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