Living With Herpes

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There are some conversations that change your life. If a doctor has ever diagnosed you with genital herpes, you may remember that discussion as one of them. Genital herpes is a frightening diagnosis for many people. Society often puts out the message that people with herpes are dirty or somehow flawed. However, many people are living with herpes -- more people than you'd expect. That alone says nothing about them.

 

Herpes affects approximately one in five Americans. Living with herpes isn't always easy. It's also not as awful as many people think it will be. You won't always be uncomfortable or in pain. You'll still be able to date, fall in love, and have sex. Herpes is a disease like any other. It isn't the end of the world.

I've Been Diagnosed With Genital Herpes! What Do I Do Now?

The first thing you need to do after you've received a genital herpes diagnosis is sit down and take a breath. You have time to learn how to live with herpes. Do some research and learn all you can about the disease. You were probably diagnosed because you experienced an outbreak. It may have been scary and painful, but don't panic.

Since you have had one outbreak, you will probably have several more over the next year. Over time, however, your outbreaks will likely become less frequent. There is medication that you can take to help:

If you were diagnosed with genital herpes because your current or former sexual partner told you that you might have been exposed to the virus, take a breath. It is possible that you will never have a noticeable outbreak.

The vast majority of people with genital herpes have asymptomatic infections. If you didn't have a symptomatic outbreak within a month after you were initially infected, you may never experience genital symptoms. However, that does not mean that you can ignore your infection. Genital herpes can be transmitted even in the absence of symptoms. That's something you already know. In fact, it was probably how you became infected with the disease.

I'm Never Speaking To The Person Who Infected Me Again!

When you are first diagnosed with genital herpes, you may want to find someone to blame. Try not to. Most people with herpes have no symptoms. Therefore, your partner may not have known that he or she was putting you at risk. If, however, you are in a relationship with a person who knew that he or she was infected with the herpes virus and lied to you about it, that's a different story. You might want to consider whether or not they are someone you can trust.

Before you judge your partners, however, evaluate your own activity.

Were you responsible about STD testing? Did you always practice safer sex when it was appropriate? Did you disclose any sexual health issues before you had sex with each new partner and ask about his or her own history? No matter how tempting it is to start throwing blame around, you may decide that it's unfair to hold others to standards you cannot uphold yourself.

Many people don't disclose herpes infections not because they don't want to. They fail to disclose because they're embarrassed or ashamed. That can make it very hard to talk about herpes when dating someone new. Unfortunately, it usually only gets harder over time. When they've waited until later in a relationship, many people start wondering, "Will they blame me for not talking about my herpes infection earlier?"

What Should I Tell My Partner?

Telling your partner you have genital herpes may be one of the hardest things about being diagnosed with the disease. Whether you have been together for years, or you're just starting out, the conversation will be difficult. Still, it is one you need to have. Start by being comfortable with the information yourself. Know how herpes is transmitted and how you can reduce the risk of giving it to your partner. If you have been together for a while, recommend that your partner be tested for the virus. If you are starting a new relationship, testing is still a good idea.

Because condoms aren't 100% protective against herpes, there is always the possibility that you will pass the disease onto your sexual partners. Consistently using male or female condoms and other barriers for all sexual contact, including oral, anal, vaginal, and manual sex, will greatly reduce the risk of transmission. So will taking suppressive therapy. These medications lower the amount of virus in your system. However, both you and your partner should remember that you can transmit the virus even if you don't have any symptoms.

Will I Ever Have Sex Again?

Herpes doesn't need to be the end of your sex life. Although safe sex techniques are not 100% effective, consistently using condoms and other barriers, and avoiding sex during outbreaks, will greatly reduce the likelihood that you will infect your partner. You should also avoid sex when you feel itching or tingling under your skin or other symptoms that suggest the herpes sores are soon going to appear (the prodromal period before an outbreak.)

Dating with herpes can be stressful. It may be more difficult to find new partners. But when you are open and honest about your infection status, there will continue to be people who want you enough to take the risk. There are also dating services specifically for individuals who have been diagnosed with herpes and other STDs. Remember, one in five adults is infected with the herpes virus. Herpes dating, and finding someone to love, may not be nearly as difficult as you think. However, even if you have both been diagnosed with genital herpes, it is still wise to practice safer sex.

That's true for oral sex as well, as herpes can be transmitted through oral sex. Cold sores, which are oral herpes, can be transmitted to the genitals and vice versa. Furthermore, having oral herpes does not protect you from getting genital herpes. In fact, oral herpes be even more contagious than its counterpart.

What Else Do I have To Worry About?

Living with herpes does have a few other effects on your health. People with herpes are at increased for HIV and have a higher risk of transmitting HIV. (That's another reason to use barrier protection.) Still, herpes is not a disease that will affect most areas of your life. Outside of sexuality, the main aspect of your life that herpes can cause problems with is childbearing. Because herpes infections can be extremely dangerous to infants, women with herpes should talk to their obstetricians about how to minimize the risk to their future children. The greatest risk of transmission to the infant occurs in women who become infected with the herpes virus during pregnancy. Therefore, people should be especially cautious with new sexual partners during this time.

Who Can I Talk To?

There are support groups for people with herpes in many cities. There are also online support groups at various websites. Talking to people about living with herpes can be a great way to make it easier... for both of you.

Sources:

CDC Herpes Fact Sheet. Accessed at:http://www.cdc.gov/std/Herpes/STDFact-Herpes.htm on July 18, 2007

Jin F, Prestage GP, Mao L, Kippax SC, Pell CM, Donovan B, Templeton DJ, Taylor J, Mindel A, Kaldor JM, Grulich AE. Transmission of herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 in a prospective cohort of HIV-negative gay men: the health in men study. J Infect Dis. 2006 Sep 1;194(5):561-70.

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