Why Having Herpes in 2020 Is Not A Big Deal

Our culture is a little topsy turvy. Think about it – there’s something the majority of the world has, that’s really not a big deal, that we spend a shocking amount of time making fun of and shaming. I’m talking about herpes. You know, cold sores. HSV-1 and HSV-2.

This pesky virus may have a bad reputation, but is it really as earth shattering as we make it out to be? 

What even is herpes?

When people think of herpes, often, an image of someone covered in nasty sores comes up. They’re seen as party animals who somehow “deserved” their diagnosis, and they spread the disease to whoever they touch. The way people treat herpes is kind of like an emotional version of packing people with leprosy away on an island. In our culture, herpes turns someone into an “other” with no future in the sexual world.

But in reality, cold sores and genital herpes are usually pretty mild – and they happen to be part of a large family of viruses that you’re already familiar with. Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) causes cold sores and genital herpes, but the chicken pox, mono, and shingles are all also under the herpes umbrella

So if these common illnesses aren’t a big deal, what makes HSV so different from the crowd? It’s not that they’re more painful – the shingles take the cake there. And it doesn’t make sense to shun herpes because it’s transmitted via intimate contact, since mono, the shingles, and the chicken pox are as well. It’s a stigma that has no root, especially when you consider that HSV is a virus that travels to the base of your spine – and for many people – sits there, happy to be dormant.

The best way to dispel this stigma is to read up on it – starting with the differences between HSV-1 an HSV-2.

There’s a difference?

Contrary to popular belief, the difference between HSV-1 and HSV-2 isn’t that one is oral and the other is genital. While HSV-1 used to be mostly oral, these days, somewhere between 20-30% of genital herpes is from this first strain.

While the media wants you to fear this virus, it’s actually very common, and you probably know of it by another name: cold sores. You know, the things you get in the winter? Different from canker sores, these fever blisters can appear around the lips, but also down south. And when they show up there, it’s just as much of a nonissue as having a cold sore – seriously. 

It makes you wonder why we’re all freaking out it in the first place. Because while HSV-2 is different than HSV-1, it’s still not that big of a deal. HSV-2 is generally seen as the more severe of the two strands, as it has more intense symptoms than HSV-1. While HSV-1 generally only causes a single bump, HSV-2 triggers multiple blisters, and can come with inflammation and flu-like symptoms.

Although these viruses appear mostly on the mouth or genitals, it can even crop up on the eyes, fingers, or patches of skin on the legs. Nurses and dental hygienists are at a higher risk of contracting herpes on the fingers, known as herpetic whitlow, but anyone can get HSV on any part of their body, since these contagious viruses are spread through physical contact.

That’s the only way to get it: skin touching skin. As soon as it leaves the body, the virus dies. So any stories about herpes coming from pools, towels, or toilet seats are just a load of fluff. The good news? A little thing like HSV doesn’t stop you from selling those panties.

The cycle of an outbreak

Although the virus isn’t a big deal and shouldn’t be stigmatized, the symptoms can still be uncomfortable. Often, before having an outbreak, you may experience the prodrome period. Your lymph nodes might be swollen, the site of the impending outbreak could be tingly, and you might feel like you have a flu coming on. This is a good time to bulk up on supplements like lysine and turmeric, so you have a chance of nipping it in the bud or cutting down the length of your outbreak.

When the prodrome period ends, the bump (or bumps) appear. If you have HSV-1, its not very noticeable. That single cold sore, especially if it’s below the belt, may easily be mistaken as an ingrown hair or other irritation. HSV-2, on the other hand, comes with multiple bumps, and is more uncomfortable, and either pop up around the lips, or around your butt, thighs, and genitals.

But just like with cold sores, taking care of yourself and doing whatever boosts your immune system best can help significantly shorten the length of any outbreak. 

The longer you go without having an outbreak, the less contagious you are. That’s a lucky break for the majority of people with HSV, since many people have a first outbreak and never get one again. The bad news? That first outbreak is always the most painful, for HSV-1 and 2 alike. 

Just how common is herpes?

All this news about an outbreak being less of a big deal than people make it out to be is well and good, but folks with herpes may be more worried about being a social pariah than how miserable an outbreak itself is.

You’re all in luck – if anything, it’s the people who don’t have herpes that are the odd ones out. The stats vary from source to source, but even the most conservative estimates point to herpes being as commonplace as the chicken pox. 

When it comes to HSV-1, the World Health Organization’s 2015 study revealed that a whopping two out of three adults under fifty had HSV-1. That’s 3.7 billion people in the world with HSV-1 – and is a conservative estimate. The Mayo Clinic puts those numbers higher, saying that about 90% of the world population (regardless of age) tests positive for the cold sore virus, even if they’ve never had symptoms. Read that again:

Ninety. Percent.

Leading me to ask the big question: why on earth are we still freaking out about herpes? Why is it still stigmatized when so much of the world has it, to the point where it’s not seen as something to lose sleep over by the medical community?

Even HSV-2, which is less common than HSV-1, is still prevalent worldwide. In 2008, an estimated half a billion people had HSV-2 – and 12% of adults under fifty have it in the United States. That’s 1 in 6 people who have genital HSV-2, according to the CDC. Translation: your friends group – you know, where you make herpes jokes – most likely has a few people with HSV-1 and 2. Now’s the appropriate time to look back and cringe. Who knows? You might even have herpes and be asymptomatic, or be like me and have spent years berating yourself for catching something as humdrum as a cold sore.

Keep in mind too that these results might be underreporting. The CDC says that over 87% of people with HSV-2 have never received a diagnosis – meaning many people you’ve slept with have probably had herpes without even knowing it.

And maybe so few people know whether they have it because it’s nothing to lose sleep over. In fact, it’s such a normal thing to have that when you go to a doctor’s appointment or an STD clinic to get fully tested, doctors don’t even bother testing for either kind of HSV. Since it’s so low-risk, and so likely that you have it, most doctors spare their patients the fear and embarrassment.

If you’re concerned and still want to get tested for HSV, you have to ask for the blood test outright, and make sure you’re getting tested for both HSV-1 and 2. A test for HSV-1 is uncommon, given that most people are exposed to HSV-1 in childhood. Kids don’t know personal space, and they’re usually sharing things utensils, food, and toys with other kids. They’re always putting something gross in their mouths. And sometimes, grandma or a clueless auntie might give a child a smooch without realizing they have a cold sore that’s contagious..

The worst part of herpes is the stigma

Flu-like symptoms and a small bump that may happen once or twice a year, if at all, doesn’t sound like much to sneeze at. And it’s not. But the thing that people fear the most about a herpes diagnosis isn’t the bumps or aches themselves – it’s the stigma.

Misinformation about herpes is so rampant that even telling your friends you get cold sores is seen as some weird act of radical vulnerability – let alone disclosing something so embarrassing on a first date.

Case in point: when I got HSV-1, I didn’t know there was a difference between the two kinds of herpes, and I got tested for HSV-2 instead – it probably didn’t occur to my doctor to test me for HSV-1, given how prevalent it is. Naturally, I came up negative. Regardless, I still wanted to take precautions with even my casual partners. So before I sealed the deal with a man I’d been flirting with for a long time, I told him I’d recently tested negative for HSV-2. He was so disgusted by the fact that I even dared to say the word “herpes” aloud that he shamed me for it. We still slept together, but he was weird about it, and more or less stopped talking to me afterward.

This guy was in a band, and I went to his concert a month later. He looked me right in the eyes through the crowd and made a scathing joke about being clean, since he didn’t have herpes or STDs. That was the last time I saw him, and although I didn’t have any romantic feelings for him, it stung way worse than any cold sore could – especially because that was punishment for just discussing my testing history.

But in the long run, that cringeworthy moment taught me something pivotal: a partner who couldn’t talk about STDs wasn’t someone I wanted to have sex with anyway, because that probably means they don’t get tested themselves

And instead of stigmatizing testing, STD discussions, and even a recurring rash (because essentially, that’s all that herpes is), shouldn’t we instead stigmatize people who refuse to get tested or talk about testing in the first place?  

I count myself lucky. That dumb fling is the only person I’ve slept with who’s had a problem with me either talking about STD testing or having HSV-1. Everyone else has been kind. It helps that I’ve educated myself on the topic, because not knowing the true details about herpes stunts many people’s sex lives. Often, people feel so awful about their positive diagnosis that they choose to stop having flings altogether, or resort to herpes-specific dating sites.

In reality, if we were more educated about how chill herpes actually is, people with the virus would feel more at ease becoming part of the broader dating world. This stigma gets even worse when you realize that many people who are wrinkling their noses at prospective partners with herpes may actually have the virus themselves and just not know it. 

This stigma bleeds out past people’s romantic lives. Herpes makes people feel like they can’t tell their friends. Often, they just sit through jokes and shaming others do about herpes. They may even feel afraid of getting rejected by friends – especially when they’re so clueless about the virus that they think sharing some fries can spread it around (news flash: you can’t get it from sharing food or drinks).

When you travel outside of the states, you’ll learn that other cultures are way more laid back about both HSV-1 and HSV-2 than we are. In Russia, for instance, it’s not a big deal to get a cold sore – or even an oral HSV-2 outbreak. People wrap a scarf around their faces or slap a bit of concealer on it, and move on with their lives.

Herpes isn’t a big deal, so why are we still treating it like one?

Not all countries are like this. For some cultures, like in Russia, it’s pretty normal to get a cold sore – or even a facial HSV-2 outbreak – and not be ashamed or secretive about them. It’s not a big deal, so why are we still treating it like one?

What you can do if you date someone with herpes

Right now you’re doing one of the best things you can do to help understand your partners with herpes: reading up on the subject. By now you know that the greatest problem your partners face by having herpes isn’t the herpes itself – it’s the social stigma. I won’t mince words here. It really sucks to fear rejection from a new partner, and it probably wasn’t easy for them to have the conversation. Herpes can be so embarrassing that it feels like the end of the world when you first get it, and educating yourself about it (even if you’re between partners) is a powerful place to start.

And once you realize that you almost definitely have had sex with someone who has herpes, learning about it becomes all the more important. If your partner tells you they have HSV-1 or 2, don’t freak out. If it makes you more comfortable, ask them questions before getting intimate. Some good things to ask are:

  • When was your last outbreak?
  • Do you have HSV-1 or HSV-2?
  • Do you take anything for it?

The longer it’s been since they had an outbreak, the less likely transmission is. It’s still possible, however, so as with any partner, practice safe sex – and ask about any other STD tests.

A casual partner who has HSV should be treated just the same as any other casual partner. Use protection, and check for any fever blisters while you’re down there. You can make that part sexy and attentive, and don’t have to worry about it being weird.

If you’re uncomfortable, that’s okay. There are plenty of ways to invoke pleasure together that don’t put either of you at risk of spreading STDs. Mutual masturbation, digital stimulation, and playing with toys together can all create an unforgettable night of passion.

Above all else, listen to your partner and hear what they have to say. And make sure you get clear about if it’s HSV-1 or 2. If you have one kind but not the other, you’re less likely to contract the other, but are still at risk of getting it. Since they’re different viruses, don’t think getting cold sores means you don’t have to worry about HSV at all. But with protection and education, you can both send your inhibitions packing for a wild ride.

What you can do if you have herpes yourself 

If you get a herpes diagnosis, or just a pretty good hunch you have it (maybe the symptoms line up, or your partner recently had an outbreak), it’s normal to feel frustrated, angry, and embarrassed. You may even think it’s the end of your dating life – especially your casual sex life. In truth, you’re worlds away from the end of your romping days. Because HSV is so common, you don’t have to sweat it about the odds being anything less than in your favor. In a lot of ways, having cold sores has weirdly given me the space to deepen my relationship to myself and my partners, and helped contribute to an even more fulfilling sex life. 

You read that right. Having something you need to disclose can be an opportunity to become more open about your sexuality in general. When you open the doors to discussion with casual partners, even one night stands, something miraculous happens: you start having other conversations – conversations about consent, boundaries, and fetishes. Even if you’re both together for a one-time event, you can redefine pleasure together each and every time. 

It may seem embarrassing to start the conversation, but it is an ethical must. It helps if you stop thinking of it as a death knell for your sex life. Instead, consider it a door that leads to discussing all kinds of other juicy sex details. When you’re that open with a prospective partner, they respond in kind – making the night that much sweeter for you both.

For instance, if you tell a partner about your status and they’re uncomfortable with penetration or giving oral, this could be a chance to whip out toys, play sex games, or give them unforgettable oral. Use a blindfold and explore each other’s bodies. Whip out those naughty dice. Trace the outline of their thighs and ribcages with chocolate syrup. Sex is a creative, fun act  – and the more you talk about it with your partners, the more you open yourself up to the best sex of your life.

This diagnosis even helps force you into doing something you may have avoided in the past: having the STD talk in general. Share how recently you got tested for everything else – and get that same vital information from your partner. If they haven’t been tested recently, you’ll be able to make an educated decision on whether you want to have the kinds of sex that can put you at risk.

Be smart, and for both of your sakes, take precautions in any way you can. Using condoms is essential, and dental dams are a smart and safe choice. Whatever you decide, communication goes a long way in getting you there.

You deserve to have a good time

In my experience, opening the door to these conversations about STDs and herpes has only weeded out one beau who ended up having a whole host of other issues beyond his sad misunderstanding of cold sores. Herpes by no means is the end of your sex life. So stop letting this virus that impacts 90% of the world rain on your parade. Start by talking about it – if we all take the first (scary) step, we can chip away at that stigma one conversation at a time.