How to Live, Love and Thrive With Herpes
Getting tested and receiving a diagnosis of herpes should not bring the world crashing around you, including your dating and sexual activity.
"People living with herpes can have completely normal lives," said Monte Swarup, M.D., board-certified in OB-GYN in Chandler, Arizona and the founder of HPD Rx. "There are treatments [that can] prevent spreading the virus to others."
Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a sexually transmitted or orally transmitted virus, and can be diagnosed as HSV-1 or HSV-2. HSV-1 is oral herpes, and it's estimated that 50 percent to 80 percent of adults in the United States have this infection. HSV-1 affects an estimated 3.7 billion people younger than age 50, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
HSV-2, more commonly known as genital herpes, is estimated to have infected 11.9 percent of Americans ages 14 to 49, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates there are more than 550,000 new infections every year.
Living a normal life with herpes
There's no cure or vaccine for herpes, but doctors can prescribe antiviral medications that lessen the severity of an outbreak and increase the time between outbreaks. Depending on the type of herpes, an outbreak may not impact your life as much as you might think, especially because there are numerous misconceptions about the condition.
If your herpes is contained in the oral region, the main strategy is to deal with visible sores, and ones less visible. Sores can occur inside the mouth and esophagus, so while they may be invisible to others, they can still prove extremely painful. Consult your primary doctor to figure out the best course of medications for your particular case.
Genital herpes comes with a little bit more pain, just because of the sensitive areas in which sores occur. You may need to take some downtime from normal activities if those activities include clothes or other materials coming in contact with and rubbing up against sores, as this can make sores worse and possibly cause infection. Wear loose clothing, apply topical medications as recommended by your doctor and take the antiviral medication as prescribed.
"The best care for affected areas is keeping the sores clean," Swarup said. "If you have genital herpes, wear cotton underwear and take sitz baths."
Sitz baths are warm baths to soothe the genital region. They are often recommended for postpartum care, especially if there was extreme stretching or tearing, or an episiotomy—a surgical cut that's made at the opening of the vagina during childbirth to aid a difficult delivery—was performed.
Living with herpes, and learning to work through it, can be a difficult process. Many people don't want herpes to affect their life at all—and for some, it may not—but there should be no shame in taking some time to heal. It can seem like an invasion of your privacy to let people in on what's going on, and if you're not comfortable telling anyone (such as your boss, which you're under no obligation to do), don't.
However, herpes is an extremely common virus affecting many of your friends and family members. If you're looking for comfort, you might be surprised how many people sympathize with your situation if and when you decide to share your condition with them.
Dating with herpes
Given that so many people have some form of herpes, it's safe to say dating while living with herpes is not only possible but common as well. The most important aspect is to be honest with partners, and it's recommended to have a conversation before any kind of sexual activity.
"Tips for telling your partners [include being] honest and taking whatever precautions possible to not spread HSV," Swarup said. "It is important to tell your partners before you decide to have sex."
As far as precautions, Swarup recommended using latex or polyurethane condoms to create the necessary protective barrier to prevent the spread of herpes from one partner to another. However, anal and vaginal penetration are not the only ways to spread herpes during sex.
HSV-1, typically associated with the mouth, can be spread to someone's genitals through oral sex, and likewise HSV-2, most often related to the genitals, can be spread to someone's mouth, also through oral sex.
This is where open and honest communication becomes imperative. If your partner is aware of the risks, they are free to make decisions in their best interest and in the best interest of the partnership as a whole. Even if the partnership is casual, all parties involved have a right to know what they're getting into and the possible risks to their health.
If you're having trouble figuring out what to say or feel uncomfortable sharing the information, there are plenty of online resources with conversation prompts and ways to respond to questions or possible judgments. Talking it over with your doctor is also a good way to make sure you're equipped with as much information as possible to express to a potential partner.
Preventing herpes while dating is as simple as using condoms, utilizing suppressive therapy—antiviral treatment taken every day to prevent outbreaks—avoiding sex when sores are active and washing your hands each time they come in contact with a sore, Swarup noted.
The good news is herpes doesn't significantly impact fertility for women, so if children are a goal for you and your partner and everything else is working well, conceiving and birthing children shouldn't be an issue.
However, Swarup added that herpes can lower sperm count, so getting the necessary tests for sperm count is recommended. A pregnant person with genital herpes also has a low risk of transmitting the virus to the baby.
Resources for patients and caregivers
Herpes isn't necessarily the type of virus where a full-time caregiver is necessary. However, that entirely depends on the age and physical status of the patient. Patients who contracted the virus through birth or at an older age may need assistance with taking antiviral medication and applying topical creams.
Very young people (infants and toddlers), older people or people with other health conditions or impairments can't always express themselves in terms of pain and needs, so keep a close eye on them. They also may experience more complications due to age, such as bladder problems, rectal inflammation and cognitive issues, so as a caregiver, keep in close contact with their doctor to monitor progress and outbreaks.
Genital ulcers can be more painful for people with suppressed immune systems, Swarup added.
Regardless of the situation, the CDC, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the WHO are all great resources for information on herpes.
If you're doing general searches to find information, cross reference any information with a reputable source, like the ones above, to make sure the information is accurate and up to date.
Herpes is a virus you have, not who you are. Once you've come to terms with the diagnosis and get on track with antiviral medications and open communication, a perfectly normal and healthy life awaits you.
Editor's note: This report is part 4 of a four-piece introduction and continuing update focusing on the herpes simplex virus. Check out the other parts of this series:
- Herpes Simplex Is More Complex Than You Might Think
- Herpes: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatments
- Herpes: Complications, Costs and Your Reproductive Health
- Herpes: Living, Dating and Thriving