I am a woman living with herpes. And while common stigma has taught us to think of herpes as “gross,” that’s far from the case.
My thoughts following my diagnosis were wrong on so many levels. I thought I was being punished, that I wouldn’t find love again. But I did find love again. And I wasn’t alone — very far from it, in fact. Herpes is extremely common, with the CDC estimating that, each year, as many as 776,000 people in the U.S. get new cases of genital herpes caused by the herpes simplex-2 virus. And nearly half of people in the U.S. are estimated to have herpes simplex-1 virus, which can cause oral herpes, and in some cases, genital herpes too.
I spoke with Dr. Vanessa Cullins, M.D., to clear up some misconceptions about the herpes virus. It’s time to set the record straight: Herpes is not the end of the world. Read on for facts about this all-too-common diagnosis and answers to questions about living with herpes.
How do you know you have herpes?
When a person has oral herpes, “cold sores” or “fever blisters” can show up on the lips or around the mouth. These sores may also show up inside the mouth, but this usually only happens the first time oral herpes symptoms appear.
Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, or have symptoms but do not recognize them as a sign of infection. Genital herpes symptoms include blisters, sharp pain or burning feelings if urine flows over sores, an inability to urinate if severe swelling of sores blocks the urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the vagina), itching, open sores, and pain in the infected area.
What to do if you’re diagnosed with genital herpes
It’s OK to have a lot of feelings and questions when you’re diagnosed with herpes. But no matter how you’re feeling, try to remember that you’re not alone, and your diagnosis doesn’t define you. It’s also important to remember that you can still live a perfectly normal and happy life with herpes. According to Planned Parenthood, the best thing you can do after your diagnosis is to follow your doctor’s recommendations for treatment. That said, Planned Parenthood notes that if you’re struggling with your diagnosis, you can talk to a trusted family member, friend, or therapist to help you cope.
How is herpes transmitted?
Herpes (both HSV-1 and HSV-2) is spread by skin-to-skin contact — which happens often through sexual contact or sexual intimacy, but can also happen during touching or kissing of a completely non-sexual nature, like from a parent to a child. Although rare, genital herpes can also be spread from a pregnant woman to her baby during vaginal birth.
Can you only spread herpes when you have an outbreak?
You should stop having sexual contact as soon as you feel warning signs of an outbreak. Warning signs may include a burning, itching, or tingling feeling on the genitals or around the mouth. Do not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex — even with a condom — until seven days after the warning signs stop or the sore heals. The virus can spread from sores not covered by the condom. It can also spread in sweat or vaginal fluids to places the condom doesn’t cover.
What is a herpes “flare-up”?
When herpes flares up again, it is called a “recurrence” or “outbreak.” Herpes does not always recur, and if it does recur, the timing and severity are different from person to person. Some people rarely have recurrences. Others have them often. Herpes is most likely to recur in the first year after infection. Recurrences may be more frequent for people with weakened immune systems.
You may have some early warning signs before an outbreak occurs, like tingling, burning, or itching where sores were before. The warning signs may start a few hours or a day or so before the sores flare up. When symptoms recur, they are usually not as severe as symptoms during an initial herpes outbreak.
What is the difference between cold sores and genital herpes?
Herpes is a very common infection caused by two different but closely related viruses (HSV-1 and HSV-2). Both are easy to catch, and they both remain in the body for life and can produce symptoms that come and go.
A person who has oral herpes can give a partner genital herpes by giving them oral sex. The reason for that is that both types of herpes can live on either part of the body (and also the eyes). So a person with one type of herpes can give another person the same kind of herpes on a different part of the body.
If I have herpes, but my partner and I use a condom, is it still possible for my partner to get it?
Using condoms between outbreaks will reduce the risk of transmission. The risk of transmission can also be greatly reduced if the partner with herpes takes a small daily dose of anti-herpes medication.
How do you test for herpes?
Only a health care provider can diagnose herpes by performing a physical exam and tests. A blood test can tell if you are infected with oral or genital herpes — even if you don’t have symptoms. Health care providers can also confirm herpes infection by testing fluids taken from the sores. If you think you have herpes sores, get them checked out as soon as possible. Your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other health centers that test for sexually transmitted diseases, private health care providers, and health departments offer herpes tests and herpes treatments.
Is herpes curable?
Although herpes treatment is helpful, there is no cure. However, in most cases, outbreaks become fewer, less painful, and weaker over the course of a few years. If you have herpes, you can take certain medications to help manage the infection. Using herpes treatments is usually very effective in speeding up the healing of sores and preventing them from returning frequently.
How do you prevent herpes transmission?
Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.
A good diet, enough rest and sleep, and effective stress management may help prevent herpes recurrences. If you have oral herpes, avoid getting sunburned.
Getting tested for STDs is a basic part of staying healthy and taking care of your body — like brushing your teeth and exercising regularly. Getting tested and knowing your status shows you care about yourself and your partner. STD awareness and testing is a basic part of staying healthy and taking care of your body. It’s important to know your risk and protect your health.