It’s Time to Talk About Herpes
May 5 2022 | Written by Rheanna Summers (She/Her)
I, like so many others, have dealt with oral herpes. I’d be lying if I said I had never faced the shame and embarrassment associated with it. And for some reason, my outbreaks were always particularly bad. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say I really appreciated wearing a mask out in public. This blog is particularly personal for me to write because herpes and the stigma it carries still hits relatively close to home. Through this post and teasing apart the many layers of herpes- from the different types to the common misconceptions- hopefully together we can each feel a little less alone in our own herpes experiences. After all, herpes is nothing to be ashamed of. Whether you have oral or genital herpes, the fact is that their associated stigmas should not call your worth or identity into question. You are not defined by your herpes; the same way you are not defined by the number of sexual partners you’ve had or your sexual preferences.
Herpes - What’s That You Ask?
Jumping right into it, herpes is considered to be a fairly common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Frequently identified by a cluster of blisters or sores, herpes can pop up on certain areas of your face (such as your lips, throat, mouth, etc.) or in and around your genitalia (anus, scrotum, vulva, thighs and more). Before an outbreak occurs, certain symptoms may appear such as a tingling or burning sensation in the specific area. The best way to test for herpes is usually by swabbing sores during an active outbreak. As always, it is best to speak with your primary medical physician regarding your options and testing for herpes.
There are two different types or strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The first type is referred to as HSV-1 and the second is HSV-2. Super simple stuff because it’s just 1 and 2, right? Well, not so fast. You see, HSV-1 is often associated with oral herpes and HSV-2 is associated with genital herpes, but neither will stick to their preferred region. This means that if someone with an active cold sore (HSV-1) performs oral on another person, then it can transfer to that person’s genitals. And it works the other way around too, where if someone who has HSV-2 on their genitals receives oral sex, then it can infect the other person.
It is important to note that with regards to genital herpes, it is still transmissible even if the person does not have any sores. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to communicate your diagnoses with potential sexual partners, prior to engaging in any form of sexual activity.
Some Interesting Facts
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 2020 it was estimated that several billions of people around the world were living with oral herpes, and approximately half a billion were infected with genital herpes. These numbers point to a large percentage of people living with herpes around the world. Within Canada, it is estimated that 14% of the Canadian population between the ages of 14 to 59 have been infected with HSV-2.
Once someone has contracted herpes, there is no cure to get rid of it. Oftentimes, the virus will stay dormant within their body until another outbreak occurs. However, some treatments do seem to reduce the number of herpes outbreaks a person can have. It is best to speak with your doctor regarding your treatment options if you have been diagnosed with genital herpes.
All this talk about herpes and you’re wondering “geez, how do I prevent an infection?” and honestly, I am too. In sex ed class, we were told that abstinence was key! Spoiler alert, it’s not, so thanks for that sex ed. Let’s take a look at some methods to potentially prevent herpes infection.
- Number 1 rule is communication. Open communication and dialogue between partners is key, especially if one side carries either of the two HSV types.
- Condoms! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Condoms are your best friend. While they don’t prevent infection entirely, they’ll still lower your risk by at least 30%. The reason the percentage is lower when compared to other STIs is because sores can occur on areas not covered by a condom (thighs, bum, scrotum).
- Dental dams are an option too, but again, they are not foolproof. Better than nothing though!
- If you have a cold sore (oral herpes), don’t share personal items with others, such as toothbrushes, lip products, and drinks.
- If you have an outbreak, don’t touch your sores because it can be transmitted to other parts of your body or to other people. If you have to touch your sore, thoroughly wash your hands afterwards.
- If you’re having a herpes outbreak, it’s best to avoid all forms of sex. Herpes is most contagious when someone has exposed sores or blisters. Although, as mentioned previously, it is still possible to spread genital herpes when there is no outbreak. Full circle moment, focus on points 1, 2, and 3.
While these are only a couple of recommendations, I’m going to leave a link here which I encourage you to check out. Planned Parenthood has some really great information and tips.
Dealing with Herpes
Having herpes can come with its own smorgasbord of feelings and emotions. In my case, I remember as a child feeling embarrassed to be known as someone who has cold sores. Especially when none of my other friends did, so I was truly the odd one out. Plus, whenever I’d have an outbreak, it’d be an uber gross sore and honestly thank goodness my parents let me skip out on school so that I wouldn’t have to see anyone.
Look, I’m not going to lie or sugar coat it, herpes can really suck. It can be a party pooper at times. But you know what? It’s stuck with me for life, baby. And the older I’ve gotten, the more people I have encountered who also deal with cold sores. Personally, I think we all just need to start telling each other our experiences with herpes to stop feeding into these social stigmas. Especially given how many people around the world have been living with both genital and oral herpes.
Herpes Does Not Define You
One of the most common stigmas associated with genital herpes is that somehow the person who has it is “dirty” or “overly promiscuous”. This narrative can especially be driven home through the media’s incessant use of herpes as the butt of their jokes. Some examples can be found in this article, such as the jokes used in movies or TV shows. The fact of the matter is that anyone can get genital herpes from just one sexual encounter. Someone who is asymptomatic may spread genital herpes without even knowing that they have it.
By acknowledging how widespread HSV-1 and HSV-2 is, hopefully it will lead to further education and awareness surrounding herpes and the shame associated with it. Because contracting herpes, either genital or oral, is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of. It does not get to dictate your value and self-worth as a person. Herpes is merely a risk that comes with being sexually active, and really some could argue it’s even just a risk of living. If you have been diagnosed with herpes, either oral or genital, and you find yourself feeling any form of shame or embarrassment, I encourage you to speak to a professional. Perhaps seeking counselling and support from communal groups or peers would be beneficial.
Living with Herpes
Before wrapping up this week’s blog topic, the last few points that I’d like to make regarding herpes is that living with a diagnosis does not mean it is the end of your dating or sex life. It just means learning to adapt and adjust to a new normal. As mentioned previously, communicating with a potential partner regarding your herpes is crucial, prior to any sexual activity occurring. While it can be embarrassing or awkward, this resource here has some really great prompts to be used while bringing up the topic. And as always, try to keep in mind that with herpes, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Another component that I didn’t explicitly touch on is the treatment for genital herpes, which aims to suppress the frequency of outbreaks. If you are someone who is interested in learning more regarding this treatment and what it entails, I encourage you to speak with your primary medical professional.
Last but definitely not least, there are resources available for those who are dealing with the shame and stigma associated with herpes. One of the resources available to those who live in Ontario is the Ontario Sexual Health Info-line (1-800-668-2437). From anywhere in Ontario, you can call and speak with a counsellor, anonymously and free of charge. For the rest of Canada, there is an organization called Action Canada that provides Canadians with a toll-free number to speak with someone regarding your sexual health. It is also free of charge, and completely confidential. They can be reached at 1-888-642-2725. Support groups can also be a great resource for those who have herpes, and all it takes is a quick google to see if one is in your area! By having these sorts of conversations, hopefully we can all collectively work towards destigmatizing herpes, once and for all.