Herpes: If So Many People Have It, Why Is Everyone Afraid? Part 1

HerpesLet’s talk about Susan. She is a 38 year old professional female – single, dating, fit, goes out a lot with friends on the weekend. Susan is a hard-working, terrific woman who seems to have mapped out a great life for herself. Susan is also what I would consider a ‘serial monogamist.’ She dates a bit, meets someone who seems like a good fit, and maybe that relationship will last 6 months, a year, or a couple of years, but she has never been married or had a relationship that lasts more than a few years. 

A few years ago, during a routine pap smear, Susan mentioned that she had occasional discomfort on her vagina, which she attributed to her underwear rubbing against her when she exercised. It would sometimes get a little raw, but would heal up within a week or so, without any specific treatment. It only happened a few times a year; so, she said she wouldn’t have mentioned it if they hadn’t asked about genital sores during her exam. They decided to perform a herpes blood test. Her results on a type-specific herpes antibody test were positive. They asked her to come in the next time she had a sore spot and she did. A culture confirmed that the sores were caused by the type 2 herpes virus they had found via her blood work.

So, what does that mean?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 776,000 new genital herpes infections occur annually. About one out of every six people ages 14 – 49 has genital type 2 herpes. That’s 16% of us. If you also account for all of the many people who have genital type 1 herpes infections, there are a lot of people living with genital herpes infections.

What’s the big deal about herpes?

It turns out that, medically speaking, genital herpes isn’t usually a big deal at all. No one wants to have it, but at the same time, it is typically more of an inconvenience and a social nuisance than a serious medical problem. The social stigma, however, is something we should not underestimate. In my experience, I find that people truly fear a herpes diagnosis. It is the Scarlet Letter H. Surprisingly, even a new diagnosis of HIV often doesn’t result in as much panic as a new diagnosis of genital herpes.

When people find out they have genital herpes, they often have a lot of questions about who gave it to them and how long they’ve had it. This is where I regularly need to talk people down. A new diagnosis of herpes does not necessary mean a new infection. Like Susan, many people have genital herpes for years – or even decades – with mild or unrecognized symptoms. In fact, many people don’t have symptoms at all. I like to explain to people that their current or most recent partner may not be the person from whom they contracted (caught) herpes.

Commonly, people get angry and assume a partner is cheating, and relationships end. Of course, you have to have a serious talk and confirm that your partner is monogamous, but if you believe your partner is loyal, you also have to consider that you or your partner might have had herpes for 5 years, 10 years, even 20 years without any awareness of the infection.

How can someone be infected for years without knowing it?

Most people with genital herpes don’t have any symptoms. Those who do have symptoms will frequently find the symptoms to be so mild that they can be attributed to something unrelated to an STD. People explain minor symptoms away, believing they may be due to rubbing during vigorous exercise, underwear or clothes that scratch against the genitals, a zipper injury in men, rough or vigorous sex, and so on. I have heard all of these explanations and more.

As many as 90% of people with genital herpes aren’t aware of their infection, which is how people can spread it unknowingly.

Is genital herpes always so mild?

Well, no, not always. Sometimes genital herpes can be painful or very uncomfortable; so, I don’t want to minimize it for those who suffer more severe symptoms. Herpes symptoms do not typically present this way, however.

When someone has a first outbreak of herpes, symptoms can be severe and may include fever, body aches, swollen glands, a discharge (women), burning with urination, a painful open sore, and so on. Primary, or first outbreaks, are the worst outbreaks and they tend to get milder over time. Fortunately, a severe first outbreak presentation is not the norm. Again, most people don’t even recognize their first outbreak as herpes and don’t see a doctor for a test.

For some, only one herpes outbreak is ever recognized. Others have outbreaks several times each year. People may have a handful of flare-ups over their lifetime. The frequency of herpes outbreaks is variable, but the first year of an infection can help us make a prediction about the future. When I talk with someone who has a lot of outbreaks in the first year, then that is someone who is more likely to continue to have regular outbreaks and may be a candidate for daily medication to reduce flare-ups. Those who have one infection and nothing else in that first year may go years or even decades before they have another outbreak.

Actually, it is entirely possible to only have one outbreak and never have another.

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Are you living with herpes and frustrated by all of the fear, stigma, and overreaction? Did this article change your perspective about someone you know with HSV or about your own infection? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Comments

  1. Suzie says

    Yes, I am really, really frustrated over this.

    When I was first diagnosed, I remember the intense feeling of panic and fear that came over me. The Dr. tried to calm me down by assuring me that a lot of people have it and that it is easy to treat/manage. But I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t. I remember thinking… “this was never supposed to happen to me!” I still get caught up in this thinking sometimes, even though I now know how inaccurate it is.

    When I saw how fast the symptoms cleared up after taking the medication I remember thinking “why was I so upset? This really isn’t such a big deal.” I know it is just a skin condition, a minor one, and honestly the symptoms themselves haven’t even bothered me since the initial round of outbreaks.

    What bothers me is that suddenly I feel like less of a person, even though I know that nothing about me has changed. I am still a good person with a big heart, I am still just as awesome and caring and have just as much integrity as I did before. Deep down, I know this. But the deep feelings of shame I suddenly now carry as a result of catching this harmless, mostly benign infection as a result of caring and feeling love for someone is almost too much to bear. The fact that now suddenly I feel like I’m no longer worthy is what frustrates me. The only thing that makes me any different than I was before is that now sometimes I might get a cold sore in a different location. I know this. But I still beat myself up and still feel like I did something wrong. Goes against all logic really. It’s not right, and it’s not fair.

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi Suzie -

      I totally agree – the stigma associated with herpes or any other STD/STI is entirely unwarranted.

      However, it’s steeped in social constructs surrounding sex – the type of sex we should be having, with whom we should be having it, how often and so forth. The good news is, there are a lot of sexuality and sexual health educators working to remove the veil from human sexuality and sexual expression, and as they succeed, the stigma surrounding the sometimes not-so-pleasant, but fairly benign outcomes of those activities will also dissipate.

      Time will help – people sharing their stories will help – education will help. And the combination of the three will be paramount to you and others not having to feel so shameful. Because, as you mentioned, it is a bit silly, once it’s broken down and one really thinks about how many people contract infections, how they aren’t sex-life-ending/relationship-ending, and how they don’t define who you are at all.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Suzie. I totally understand why you’re frustrated – I was too; hence, this website! Hang in there, though, it is and will continue to get better.

    • Rummyk says

      Hi Suzie! Thank you for sharing your comments; as I was diagnosed with herpes today. I felt EXACTLY like you said you did when you found out, and I found comfort knowing I’m not alone!

    • Missy says

      I just found out I have it too. I’ve been with my partner for a year, we were both tested at the beginning and were found healthy. Although I don’t have a factual answer, I think this happened from oral sex, before the cold sore or sensation even began. Neither of us had ever had a cold sore either so we just didn’t know.

      This is what kills me the most. The fact that the reason behind it is so stupid and could have been prevented. They really honestly don’t hurt, don’t bother much, What is hard is the fact that they are there and I now can say I have an STD. Just saying that scares the heck out of me.

      My significant other says he doesn’t care about that, it’s only a hiccup and we will just adjust. I’m trying to learn what I need to do with my sex life, the do’s and don’ts for sex and when we plan to have a baby. It is not guaranteed that he has it as he shows no symptoms yet and I can’t find any information about what sex will be like now.

      I’m lucky to have someone so loving and supportive. I just wish I could love myself again.

      • Jenelle Marie says

        Hi Missy -

        Keep in mind, the majority of STD tests do not test for HSV, so it’s quite plausible one of you (or both of you) have had the infection for some time.

        Sex for the two of you doesn’t necessarily have to be any different…that will be up to you guys as a couple as you begin to learn more about the infection and the risk of transmission. STD? What Now? is also a great place to start. :)

        Thanks so much for your comments!

        • Missy says

          You have no idea how much these articles and your comments help.

          No words can express my gratitude.

  2. Suzie says

    Hi Rummyk! You most certainly are not alone. Far, far from it my friend. I’m sure that you will find many people with stories (and feelings) very much like yours. It’s kind of scary actually! When I was first diagnosed, I truly felt like I must be the only person in the world with herpes that doesn’t fit in with the ridiculous “stereotype”. And of course once I got past the denial I felt like I was the only person in the world with herpes. My eyes have been opened very much since then, as I’ve come to meet many beautiful, wonderful, intelligent people who have helped me through this process. I recommend reaching out on and telling your story. It helps deal with the initial feelings of shock and fear, to get feedback from people who have been there and gotten through to the other side. :)

  3. darlingN says

    I was diagnosed at the end of Jan 2014. My doctor told me that I had it. I started thinking who gave me this why did I do such stupid things and so forth. I went in for my annual in March and my doctor made it seem like that I probably didn’t have it after all the way that she talked. Well I just seen my results online that say I am positive. And now I’m at lost for what to do. And I feel like there is no one I can talk to, because I fear that they will judge me and talk behind my back. I will see my doctor in a week to talk about my results but until then I’m looking up everything I can so I know what to do and such. Any advice?

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi darlingN -

      Yes! Start with our STD? What Now? post, and go from there. The more you learn and arm yourself with resources and education, the easier the healing process will be. Of course, you’re not alone, and we are here to help.

      So, please, feel free to reach out with questions as they come up too.

      Thanks so much for your question!

  4. Victoria says

    Hi, I was diagnosed yesterday with genital herpes. My 21st birthday is next week, so you can imagine the initial shock I had. But at the same time I feel like I have already come to terms with this virus. The social stigma surrounding this virus is so insane. I can imagine how lonely and isolated some people may feel. But it’s important to remember that this doesn’t define who we are. I have my life on track as far as finishing my degree and working full time and just because I have herpes doesn’t mean my world has to change or end. This virus will only effect my love life for future relationships, but only if I let it.

    The way I look at it: This virus is a blessing in disguise. I will now be able to weed out the losers/cowards and never settle for less than I deserve. And this will give me a chance to get to really know someone without feeling the pressure to have sex. Some may think that this is the ultimate cockblock, but in reality, it is actually the ultimate protection of not only your heart, but your pride, dignity, body, and mind.

    Forget what any of those none virus having people have to say. Knowledge is key. And this key most people seem to be lacking is a reflection of them and not you!

    Take this time to heal your mind and fall in love with yourself again!

    Do stuff to distract your mind from slipping into those unwanted thoughts:

    Yoga, meditate, go for a walk, exercise, and my personal favorite: ZUMBA!

    Shake your ass ladies because you ARE beautiful and you ARE worth it.

  5. Melissa says

    I have it and I was very angry and upset about it. I got it when I was 19 and I am 24 so its been awhile for having this to live with. All I can share with others is that I am not gonna blame this on anyone. I didn’t understand the importance of safe sex. My parents were not so strict or concerned about my sexual partners when I first lost my virginity at age 16. I didn’t love my self enough to care. Now that I’m fully aware of the love I have for my self…that I am a strong amazing loving caring woman. But after reading more about this again I think I will try taking valtrex. I have a bf of almost 3 years. We have a perfectly healthy baby boy, vaginal delivery. I was battling my depression and shame on this disease for the last few years up until I reached a breaking point after all the drugs and alcohol I was doing at age 22 I realized I needed to change my life and change the way I feel about myself and decided I want to be a mother and I am a good person again that I knew I was going to be a good mother and a good girlfriend and have the life that I’ve always wanted and I am still kind of messing up here and there but at least I’m trying and I’m doing a lot a lot better than I was I clean myself up I am pushing myself to be the best I can be everyday of my life.