Living with Herpes
It’s just a diagnosis, not a death sentence
( @plannedparenthood / Instagram)
At 19 years old, Carolina* contracted herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) from her first sexual partner. It appeared as genital herpes and caused her so much pain initially that it was difficult to walk properly.
Due to the stigma that surrounds herpes, she felt the need to lie to friends when asked what was wrong and was even scolded by her own mother when she learned of her daughter's diagnosis.
The stigma surrounding herpes arguably can be more harmful than the STD itself.
Many of these stigmas stem not from the diseases, but in how they’re contracted. Some view STDs as punishment for engaging in “wrong” or “dirty” behaviors, thus viewing those who have these diseases the same.
However, this can be a confusing trend when you look at the numbers of people with STDs. The most common appearance of herpes is just a cold sore. Almost half of all Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-1, with more than 3.7 billion people having it worldwide (two-thirds of the world’s population).
Anyone who has ever kissed another person or shared a drink with a friend could have gotten oral herpes. Anyone who has ever had sex could have gotten genital herpes.
While billions of people worldwide have herpes, not all of them have symptoms or even know that they have it. In fact, as many as 90% of people who have genital herpes may not even be aware they have it.
Symptoms, or outbreaks, of herpes are marked by an irregularity in the skin (called lesions) such as pimples, blisters or fissures, or as an itch. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills and headaches, may be results of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
HSV-1 is more commonly associated with oral herpes but can be transmitted as genital herpes, as well. HSV-2 appears mainly as genital herpes (anywhere on the vulva, penis, butt or thighs).
While herpes stays in the body forever, outbreaks are not constant and herpes will spend most of its time in your body in a latent state. Most people who know they have herpes take an oral medication called Valacyclovir. It can be taken preventatively to keep outbreaks from happening or during an outbreak to mitigate symptoms and reduce the chances of transmission. But with or without medication, outbreaks will slow over time and for some may stop completely.
Talking about your herpes
Before telling her friends and family about her HSV-1 diagnosis, Carolina had to first confront her own feelings about the situation.
It took her awhile to accept it. This new diagnosis felt like a blow to her confidence.
“Anytime a cute guy, or someone I found attractive would approach me, I’d have a breakdown, and they wouldn’t understand why,” Carolina said. “I was scared if it turned into something I’d have to disclose this information, and it was just really rough.”
She also found it difficult to open up to friends out of fear of judgement. She eventually turned to therapy, which taught her that you’re justified to set your own boundaries of who you talk to about it and how you talk to them about it.
“There’s no shame in seeking help,” Carolina said.
Through this she found a bubble of people who are emotionally available to help and open to educating themselves on STDs. Now at 21, Carolina has come to learn how to live with her herpes and not let it hinder her everyday life.
While talking to family and friends, consider if you need to tell them (if you aren’t at risk of transmitting herpes to them, you don’t have any obligation to tell them) and if you feel comfortable telling them.
Navigating sexual relationships with herpes
The most important thing when starting a new sexual relationship is disclosure. As herpes is easily spread, even when you don’t have active outbreaks, it’s of the utmost importance that you tell your new partner so you both can stay safe.
You don’t have to tell them right away if you aren’t going to be doing sexual activities together yet. For some it’s easier to rip the bandage off right away and get it over with. Others like to take their time and connect on a deeper level before divulging that they have herpes.
As long as the conversation is had before any sexual contact is made, any way that makes you comfortable and helps you to share with your partner confidently is a good way to communicate.
Your sexual and romantic relationships are not over because you have herpes.
Carolina has found a loving relationship, where herpes are not the center of their world.
“Speaking about it often with my partner has made things a lot better because he emphasizes that it’s not a big deal,” Carolina said. “There are so many more things to consider in a relationship — like their personality and what they add to your life.”
You don't have to suffer sexually just because you have herpes, either. You can have a very satisfying sex life while reducing the risk of transmitting herpes to your partner — although you can never fully eliminate the chances.
You should never have sex during an outbreak, as this is when you’re most likely to transmit the virus. When you do have sex, you should always use a condom. Condoms can reduce the risk of transmission 96% from male to female and 65% from female to male.
Oral sex can be protected with the use of dental dams. Infectious oral herpes can be transmitted throuh oral sex, causing genital herpes. Dental dams act as a condom, blocking your partner from direct contact. They can even be made out of a condom.
For most people, herpes is just a bump in the road. The diagnosis of “herpes positive” will likely cause more emotional harm than physical harm, if you practice safe sex and take necessary medications.
Educate yourself and those around you on the transmission, management and acceptance of STDs. Demand answers from medical providers, even if they tell you preventative knowledge isn’t necessary, because it is — know about what can happen to your body and protect it.
*Names were changed out of respect for the source's privacy.
Rachel Kutcher is a Staff Writer for Rowdy Magazine. She loves the rain, candles, drinking wine, collecting jars and New Girl's Nick Miller. Her passions include destigmatizing sex, empowering women and sustainability.