Tangent Time – Hike with Herpes
On any given hike, you may find yourself alone, confronted with your own intrusive thoughts. This can quickly and easily spiral in time to overanalyze you. Personally, I find myself on tangents, thinking about certain words and what they mean to me, dissecting my relationships – all that fun stuff to deal with. While hiking the PNT (Pacific Northwest Trail), I probably spent a week alone thinking about the word curiosity. What it means to be curious, to question, to form opinions or predictions on specific topics. So here we are with today’s episode of Tangent Time, with me your host, Flower. Today’s topic is herpes, so he’s about to get really vulnerable.
Let’s start with the basics.
First of all, what is is herpes? HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus) is a virus that causes contagious sores, most often around the mouth or on the genitals. You might hear him talk about cold sores or genital herpes, or maybe HSV-1 or HSV-2. Typically, people with HSV-1 will have cold sores (mouth sores) in an outbreak, and people with HSV-2 will usually have genital sores during an outbreak. This is not the case for everyone, however. Both types of viruses can be present in either area and can also remain dormant. This means that a lot of people can go months or even years without even realizing they have it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in six people (about 17%) between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes in the United States. In addition, in 2016, an estimated 3.7 billion people under the age of 50, or 67% of the population, were infected with HSV-1 (oral or genital). The estimated prevalence of infection was highest in Africa (88%) and lowest in the Americas (45%) (as disclosed by WHO, World Health Organization).
To recap, herpes is a very common experience, but one that often goes undiagnosed because most oral and genital infections are asymptomatic. Additionally, the CDC does not recommend testing for herpes for people without symptoms. According to Planned Parenthood, it is estimated that only 10 to 15% of people with herpes show symptoms. With that in mind, if two-thirds of the population have HSV-1 and only 10 to 15 percent of that population knows they have it, it is very likely that the virus is spreading unknowingly all the time.
Basically two-thirds of the world has HSV-1, and yet we still see massive stigma attached to the virus.
So why is this important and what does it have to do with hiking?
The hike is objectively difficult. Whether it’s terrain, weight, figuring out what gear works and doesn’t work for you, planning food proportions, shipping you replenishment boxes, digging cat holes, blisters, injuries, the list goes on. We often talk about these things. He is Ordinary to talk about these things. No one will give you weird looks complaining about how the post office lost your replenishment box, or how you twisted your ankle while stepping over a knockdown. It’s just stuff that happens on the trails, isn’t it?
Imagine if we talked about herpes the same way we talked about irritations, if we broke free from the confines of shame and embarrassment. If 67% of the population has HSV-1 and 17% has HSV-2, then there certainly must be people on the trail to deal with an epidemic. It’s time to normalize talking about epidemics.
Sore to new heights on the track.
Living in a body struggling with chronic pain or disease means I have to take a few extra steps to stay comfortable on the track. And sometimes, no matter how prepared or proactive steps I take, shit happens anyway. Hiked 20+ miles a day in 100 degree (F) weather, wobbling the dehydration line, constantly trying to adjust my shorts and underwear, itchy, burning, pain when peeing, trying to stay focused on the beauty of the trail but being so distracted by my discomfort. Or on the other hand, facing an aggravated sore on my lip, feeling embarrassed, bleeding all over, hurting while eating. Everything sucks. But we get there, we move forward, and often in silence for fear of being ostracized.
What’s in your first aid kit?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the UL (ultralight) community bring only bandages and ibuprofen. It’s confusing to me what people are willing to leave at home to shave a few ounces. Perhaps this is because these people lead relatively “healthy” lives, so bringing drugs or creams just doesn’t seem applicable. Or maybe it was my experience working in outdoor education or the travel guide that really got me ready. To each their own, I guess. Anyway, I come locked up and loaded with things that I might need. This includes the typical bandages, antibiotic ointment sachets, a few gauze pads, Leukotape (arguably the best bandage), KT (Therapeutic Kinesiology Tape), you know, the basics. In addition, I bring a full prescription of antibiotics (I am personally very sensitive to UTIs), a tube of ketoconazole (antifungal cream for my face) and a few weeks of antiviral.
What can I do on the trail if I am susceptible to epidemics?
Being in the backcountry with an outbreak adds an additional difficult element. There are things you can do to prepare for success ahead of time, and things you can do to comfort yourself while having active wounds. If you have access to medication, bring it. This way you can help alleviate an outbreak if you sense one on the way. In addition, it can be useful to get rid of sores that have managed to appear.
If you end up with a mouth sore, be sure to change your water bottles frequently. Don’t store your old smart water bottles. If you use lip balm or lip balm to help soothe or prevent your sore from cracking, then it becomes infected and needs to be changed when your sores go away. Continuing to use items after an outbreak can re-infect you, so be sure to wash your hands as much as possible when interacting with a wound. If you have an active outbreak on your genitals, take wipes and try to keep the area clean. Try to wear clean underwear if you can; do a ziplock laundry if you are far from town.
Why should I care if it doesn’t affect me?
Have you ever had a really tough day where all you want is a listening ear without judgment? Everyone deserves a space to feel heard and not feel rude about their body or things related to their health. If we can have regular conversations about pooping in the woods while eating ramen bomb (ramen mixed with instant mashed potatoes, an infamous track dish) then we should be able to normalize the talking about cold sores or cold sores on our tracks.
We should talk more about STIs, even on the track (everyone knows sex happens, we can’t deny the track relationships). Know your status, avoid using language like ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, get tested regularly (okay, maybe on track might not be the most accessible for this, but off track!), and use protection.
If you find yourself joking about herpes, implying that people with herpes are dirty, or promoting the idea that it’s such a scary thing to have, maybe think about how it is. can affect those around you. Will your joke or statement potentially cause more harm or uplift those around you? Are you actively working to break down stigma or perpetuating it? Language is everything.
“Herpes simplex virus.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus.
Parenthood, planned. “STD Awareness: Asymptomatic Herpes Elimination.” ” Arizona Planned Parenthood Advocates, https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/planned-parenthood-advocates-arizona/blog/std-awareness-asymptomatic-shedding-of-herpes.
“Std Facts – Genital Herpes (Detailed Version).” Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 22, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm.