Not only is it harder to get hard in space, we recently got some more bad news about off-Earth travel: It might give you herpes.
That’s right: According to a study recently released by NASA, a variety of latent herpes viruses have been reactivating in more than half of astronauts. Forty-seven out of 89 astronauts — 53 percent! — have shown signs of “viral shedding” of herpes viruses (“viral shedding” refers to the virus being found in things like their saliva or urine, which is caused by a dormant virus being reactivated). Very few actually had symptoms — just six of those 47 experienced skin lesions or rashes — but this is enough to cause concern for a variety of reasons.
For one, things got worse the longer astronauts were in space. In addition to those 89 shuttle astronauts who were tested for missions lasting about two weeks, they also tested 23 astronauts on the International Space Station, and found that 61 percent of them had shown viral shedding as well. This could end up being an even bigger problem as we try to travel deeper into space, or when people start booking extended vacations on that loathsome moon of ours.
Additionally, the shedding continued for about a month after the astronauts returned to Earth, which could cause a health hazard for any newborns they come into contact with (so don’t let that astronaut kiss your baby), or those who are immunocompromised. As sexual health doctor Joshua Gonzalez explains, “While technically you can contract these diseases at any point from someone who is infected, someone is definitely more contagious during a flare-up.”
Four of the eight known types of herpes were detected, all told: HSV, which causes oral and genital herpes; CMV and EBV, which cause mononucleosis (aka, mono); and VZV, which causes chicken pox and shingles. While HSV might be the first thing you think of when you hear “herpes,” the two of greatest concern are VZV, which can cause blindness and be downright deadly, and CMV, which can be immunosuppressive, an already huge problem for space travel.
Immune system suppression, in fact, is the whole reason these herpes viruses are popping up in space to begin with. The bottom line is that space travel is stressful: Not only are astronauts dealing with stress from being separated from their loved ones and getting their sleep cycles all messed up, they also have to contend with a variety of obstacles that present physical stressors (you wouldn’t think you’d need a scientist to point out that being blasted into orbit atop 1,170,459 gallons of literal rocket fuel would be a stressful experience, but here we are). According to the study, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released in greater volume during spaceflight, and those hormones, in turn, suppress our immune systems.
This isn’t unique to herpes — the stress of spaceflight may awaken any dormant virus you have in your system, but herpes was focused on because of its pervasiveness, as according to the study, pretty much everyone on Earth — anywhere from 70 to 95 percent — has some kind of herpes. As Gonzalez explains, “Once you have the virus, you have it for life, but it has these periods of dormancy. During times of stress, however, our defenses are down and they can reactivate.”
So what can be done about it? The study cites vaccinations for astronauts, but the problem is that most herpes viruses don’t have vaccines. Aside from that, Gonzalez says that because it’s a virus, all people can really do is take an antiviral medication once they show symptoms in the hopes that it will push it back into dormancy. Aside from that, astronauts are pretty much out of luck (at least, until we can figure out the problems surrounding space beer, thus making space travel less stressful).
Finally, let’s get to the real question here: Whether or not we’ll end up passing herpes onto aliens when we meet (and try to bang) them. While Gonzalez politely declined to answer this question, I did find this study which reported cases where herpes viruses have been passed between species, specifically between humans and monkeys and humans and pigs. So, while I have no real medical qualifications to back this up, there’s at least a slim chance that we’ll be able to start spreading herpes throughout the galaxy. U-S-A! U-S-A!