By Kendall McKenzie
Herpes, the lifelong sexually transmitted infection (STI) that gives you sores on your mouth and/or genitals, is VERY common: More than half of Americans have oral herpes, and one in six have genital herpes. The ol' herps gets around.
Even though millions of people have herpes, it’s one of the more stigmatized infections. But, the very fact that there’s a crap-ton of people kicking ass and taking names while living with this virus proves that it’s not a total life-ruiner. Herpes fear is often based on serious untruths, so let’s clear some things up and talk about what it really means to live with this virus. There are two separate but similar herpes simplex viruses: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes, and HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes, but it’s possible for either type to infect both body parts. When any of these strains appear on or around the down-south areas (vulva, penis, scrotum, anus, etc.), it’s called genital herpes. When they infect the mouth, it’s called oral herpes (sometimes known as cold sores or fever blisters).
Symptoms & Misconceptions
Most people don’t show symptoms for months or years — or never show symptoms at all (and therefore don’t know they have it). If you do get symptoms, your first herpes outbreak (blistery sores wherever the infection is located, sometimes accompanied by flu-like feelings) usually happens two to 12 days after you were first infected. The virus stays in your body forever and can randomly pop up and cause outbreaks, but it’s hard to say how often it will happen and how severe it will be, because it totally varies. People with weaker immune systems are more likely to have more intense or persistent symptoms.
One of the biggest misconceptions about herpes is that it’s super obvious when someone has it. But, as we just learned, the majority of people with herpes have no idea they’re infected because they don’t show symptoms (or symptoms are so mild they go unnoticed). Herpes can also look like other STIs like syphilis, or skin conditions like ingrown hairs and pimples. In the U.S., around 80% of people with HSV-2 have never officially been diagnosed. At the end of the day, the only way to know for sure whether you have herpes is to see a doctor.
Herpes is pretty easily contracted through genital and oral contact (like kissing and oral, anal, and vaginal sex) with people who’ve got it. It’s one of those STIs that only requires skin-to-skin touching to spread, which means that even things like rubbing a penis on a vulva can do the trick — no intercourse necessary. Fluid from herpes blisters can transmit the virus, but it can also “shed” and infect others when no sores or other symptoms are showing and the skin looks totally normal. Most of the time, herpes gets passed from someone without any visible signs of the infection.
So, that’s all kind of bad news, but every cloud has a silver lining — even the herpes cloud. Dental dams for oral sex on a vulva or anus, and condoms for oral sex on a penis help protect against herpes. Barriers may not prevent every single transmission, because herpes can live on areas not covered by condoms (like scrotums, buttocks, upper thighs, and labia). But, other than total abstinence from any skin-to-skin genital and oral contact, condoms and dams are still the best way to protect yourself. Another great reason to always use condoms: Herpes increases the risk of HIV transmission, and condoms protect against HIV as well.
Though herpes is a bummer and obviously nobody WANTS to get it, lots of people with herpes will tell you it’s actually not that big of a deal. Yes, the virus hangs around in your body for life, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting sores all the time. The first outbreak is usually the worst, and they often happen less and less (or stop altogether) over time. Whether herpes will be a lifelong nuisance or a small blip in the road is kind of a crapshoot. Viruses behave differently in different people’s bodies: Some people never show symptoms, some only ever have a couple outbreaks, while others may find their herpes pops up often enough to need treatment.
Luckily, there are medications that can help shorten and prevent outbreaks, and reduce the risk of spreading herpes to others. So, herpes is annoying, sure, but it’s not deadly and it usually doesn’t cause any serious health problems. People with herpes can have sex, be in relationships, and live totally normal lives by taking simple precautions like getting treated, talking with their doctors and partners about treatment and prevention, and using protection.
Unlike with other super-prevalent, easily spread infections like colds and the flu, our negative cultural attitudes about sex attach a huge stigma to STIs. Herpes is part of the same family of common viruses as mono and chickenpox, but it’s often singled out as particularly embarrassing just because it can be sexually transmitted. The myths (that herpes strictly affects those who are “promiscuous” and only spreads because people are dishonest about their status) are particularly harmful and misleading. The reality is that herpes can climb aboard anybody who has ever been kissed on the lips or had sexual contact — which, let’s be real, is pretty much all of us. And, the people spreading it aren’t likely to know they even have it. Having herpes doesn’t mean a person is unethical or “dirty” — it means they’re a regular ol’ human who got a really common infection.
Stigma doesn’t just hurt people with herpes who endure mocking or cruel jokes about the infection; it hurts everyone. The cultural shame surrounding STIs means people are less likely to get tested, to insist on using protection, and/or to be honest with their partners about their sexual history — all of which are the very things that help prevent the spread of infections like herpes in the first place. So, it’s really in everyone’s best interest to stop using herpes as a punchline and start treating it like any other common health issue, because education and prevention go a lot further than fear and shame.