Answering your questions, man to man. Send us your question in the form at the bottom of this piece. I've been seeing this girl and we've really been hitting it off. And then last night, she tells me she has herpes. Now, I'm freaking out. My head tells me to handle this like a mature gentleman.
But my gut reaction is to ghost and never look back—I don't want herpes! What should I do? Finding out your partner has herpes can be a bombshell at any point in the relationship. Then come the other questions: Is herpes a deal breaker? Are you stupid to continue a relationship with someone who has herpes?
Or are you stupid for breaking it off? But it is not nearly as unique or earth-shattering as you think it is. No one wants herpes. But at the same time, it's not the end of the world. Herpes is more common than you think. Herpes does last forever, but most people see no symptoms for years, decades or ever at all. Having herpes doesn't mean your partner is or ever was a cheater or a slut. A herpes infection can go undetected for decades, which means you might even be the one who introduced it into the relationship without knowing it.
The worst part of herpes is the stigma. Many people with herpes never have symptoms or outbreaks. You can still stay together, you can still have freaky sex, you can get married and have kids, whatever. There are two viruses that people talk about when they talk about herpes: HSV-1 is the one that usually causes cold sores around your mouth and lips.
HSV-2 is the one usually responsible for genital herpes. And yes, herpes is forever. How common is herpes? The prevalent statistics you encounter in drug commercials, sex ed, and PSAs are inconsistent and often confusing.
However they, too, will retain the virus for life and be contagious. Not just compared to everyone you know, but compared to your own life up to this point. The Stigma Herpes is the modern day leprosy. We have a long tradition of shaming, ridicule, and misconception to thank for that.
From Shakespeare and South Park to sex ed and parodies of Valtrex commercials, herpes has been treated unfairly by mass society. This is between you and your girlfriend, fiance, wife, boyfriend, husband, life partner or whatever.
You have the opportunity to be open-minded about this. First, is your partner a slut? Is she cheating on you? By sleeping around and having unprotected sex?
According to the CDC, most herpes transmissions occur when the infected person shows no symptoms and may not even know they are infected. Remember, over 1 in 6 people have HSV When you catch a cold or the flu, do you look for the culprit?
Do you search back in your memory for which doorknob you touched that might have been infected or which person sneezed in your vicinity? And that's because there's no stigma and shame associated with catching the cold or the flu. So, blame and origin is irrelevant, because those things are seen as unfortunate but part of being human — our bodies are resilient but not infallible, and the potential for infection and risk is present in almost everything we do.
The only reason we care about who gave it to us and when is because we shame people for how they got it — by having sex or engaging in sexual activities. When we take that away, we stop freaking out. Herpes is contracted through skin-to-skin contact and through sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal. So, yes, you can contract herpes from someone whether or not they are having an outbreak. Staying in a relationship where you are negative and they are positive seems like playing with fire.
Garrison, a clinical sexologist , told Primer: Herpes prodrome include itchiness, tingling, burning, numbness, aches, shooting pains, and other sensations and can appear 30 minutes to a couple of days before an outbreak. When prodrome is present, it means the virus is active and the chances of transmission are high.
Is the risk higher than being in a relationship with someone who is confirmed negative? But is it realistic to only be in relationships with people who have been recently tested for herpes? That being said, you'll never reduce your risk of contracting herpes from a partner down to zero.
But you can get it pretty damn close. There are three ways to reduce the risk of transmission. Abstain from sex during outbreaks. For many people, outbreaks can be entirely prevented by paying attention to prodrome early indications of an oncoming outbreak and taking medication when they appear. After an outbreak, you should abstain from sex for about 2 to 3 days. This is when the virus is contagious, but there are no symptoms of a herpes outbreak. Asymptomatic shedding greatly decreases after the first year of infection, especially with the use of suppressive medication.
The idea of a person being contagious without knowing it sounds scary, but studies show that for those who have herpes and never have outbreaks, they shed about 1 out of 10 days and for those who do have outbreaks, they shed about 2 out of 10 days. That's a pretty small window, even if you're frisky enough to go at it every day of the year.
Plus, anti-viral medication greatly reduces asymptomatic shedding. If your partner is asymptomatic and taking daily medication, then the chances of transmission are already low. Condoms take it down even lower. If nothing else, dating someone with herpes can seem like an inconvenience. The need to always wear protection and be aware of outbreaks and prodromal symptoms is certainly unique. For most people, herpes outbreaks happen less and less frequently as time goes on.
There are medications that can shorten or prevent outbreaks and reduce the chances of transmitting herpes to another person. Coupled with a good understanding of herpes and a frank and open discussion with your partner, this can mean a very manageable relationship with herpes.
Is a long term relationship with someone with herpes a life sentence for protected sex? Or is contracting herpes from your partner going to be an inevitability—not a matter of if, but when? That can't be answered definitively.
I'm not going to sit here and guarantee that you'll never get herpes, either from your long term girlfriend or from a random hookup. And they all sort of do it in their own way. In a long term relationship where there is open communication, maybe even a little professional counseling people like Eric Garrison, or someone your doctor refers , you find your rhythm. You find the lifestyle and sex life that fits your comfort level. In the same way that no birth control method reduces the chances of pregnancy to zero, couples eventually find the right balance between caution and calculated risk.
Some couples have sex with condoms every time, others only wear protection during outbreaks or simply avoid contact with the areas where the virus is transmittable. Sores can appear around the mouth, on the genitals, on the thighs, or buttocks, etc.
The recurrence of herpes outbreaks is variable—but they always reappear in the same site. You can get herpes tested by a primary care physician or at a health clinic.
Herpes can be tested by taking a sample from a sore, or by taking a blood test to check for HSV antibodies. The incubation period for herpes is usually 1 to 7 days but may incubate for longer, even weeks, before showing any symptoms. Here's an infographic that explains the herpes testing process. Is it okay to break up with someone because they have herpes? Yes, of course it is. You can break up with someone because their mother is awful or because of the weird way they eat ice cream or because they have different job and family aspirations than you.
People are not defined by their sexually transmitted infections and neither are relationships. For the vast majority of the days in your lives, herpes will be a non-issue. Chances are, attitudes about herpes will change in the coming decades. As a kid, I remember reading in the Bible about the way lepers were treated and thinking how foolish it was that these people were marginalized because they were wrongly believed to be unclean and contagious.
Are the conditions we stigmatize today much different? Thirty years in the future, you might judge yourself differently for recoiling from herpes in ignorance. But, like I said, if this is something you don't feel calibrated to take on, or to take on with this specific partner, then you don't need to feel guilty about ending things. Maybe you were already on the fence and then you got this news.