Living With Herpes
A diagnosis of herpes can be challenging because of the unnecessary stigma around the virus. Though not curable, herpes is completely treatable, and there's no shame in being infected.
But the onus is on infected people to know the facts about this persistent virus, to keep from spreading it to others. You can alleviate your symptoms and limit recurrences with some well-known medications and adopting a few lifestyle habits that will benefit every aspect of your health.
Overview of herpes
Herpes simplex virus (HSV), commonly called herpes, is a viral infection affecting 2 in 3 adults around the globe. HSV-1 is most commonly associated with oral herpes and HSV-2 with genital herpes, and can cause painful sores around the mouth and genitals.
The virus is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, most frequently through an open sore. It's also transmitted through saliva and genital secretions through kissing and vaginal, oral or anal sex. Symptoms typically begin two to 12 days after contact with the virus, and last two to four weeks.
Herpes symptoms vary significantly from person to person. Initial outbreaks of herpes are often the worst, causing flu-like symptoms and painful sores on and around the lips and inside the mouth for oral herpes, or on the genitals, and sometimes buttocks, thighs and anus, for genital herpes.
Recurring symptoms can be painful, too, with fluid-filled blisters becoming ulcers, which eventually scab over and heal. Some people never experience a recurrence, while others have only mild symptoms, such as small red bumps or white blisters on their mouth or genitals. With the help of antiviral treatments, symptoms can be less frequent, less severe and resolve quickly.
In addition to chronic antiviral treatments or suppressive treatment to prevent recurrent outbreaks, lifestyle changes that promote health and wellness can reduce stress on the body and sometimes reduce the chances of reemergence. Eat a balanced diet high in vitamins B and C, iron, omega-3s and, importantly, lysine, which is linked to herpes suppression. Get adequate rest every night, take extra care if you're sick or injured, find ways to manage and reduce stress, exercise regularly and protect your physical and mental health
HSV can have a significantly detrimental impact on mental health. Individuals who have herpes recurrences experience an array of emotional responses, including distress, annoyance, anger, depression and decreased self-esteem, according to a 2005 study. That study, from CNS Drugs, also found a strong positive association between stress and recurrence. A 1996 study from the Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases linked genital herpes to psychological and psychosexual morbidity, noting that emotional problems related to HSV were more common and severe in women than in men.
Confusion, embarrassment, shame and even fear are also common emotions for people with herpes. Many studies have found that stress may increase the risk for a recurrence, and recurrences themselves are upsetting. While the symptoms of oral and genital herpes take a physical toll, the stigma around the virus is believed to be the primary cause of related psychological distress.
Importantly, research also indicates that individuals who cope better with the diagnosis and are less impacted by it emotionally have better outcomes and less frequent recurrences. Thus, reducing the emotional impact of herpes is essential in improving both mental and physical health outcomes. Some people can handle it on their own; some might need the support of a partner.
If you are struggling, seek help. Consider consulting a mental health professional or joining a support group. Honeycomb Herpes Support Group, Men's Group and SupportGroups.com are great options to connect with others who are coping with the same virus and challenges you are.
Remember that you are not alone—9 in 10 people experience some form of herpes by age 50, so the majority of the people you know have likely been faced with the virus themselves. If you're comfortable with it, try opening up to family, friends or a partner about how you're feeling. For all you know, that person may have herpes, too.
Sex and relationships
Herpes can impact relationships in multiple ways. Some people are embarrassed about having herpes and may avoid telling a partner about their status, fearing that they may no longer be attracted to them. Others are anxious about telling a potential partner because they are worried they may not take the news well. In some cases, herpes prevents people from starting new relationships for fear of judgment.
While these feelings are common, the reality is that healthy and happy relationships are very possible for people living with herpes. Coming to terms with the diagnosis, on your own or with professional support, can help you feel more comfortable sharing this part of yourself with others. Keep in mind that herpes, while not curable, is entirely treatable, and there are options to minimize symptoms.
It is important to be honest with all partners about your status before kissing or having sex, just as you'd want someone to be honest with you about any sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Educate yourself about the virus beforehand, so you have the facts and can share them with clarity. Know the common myths about herpes and how to dispel them. Talk about the virus in a safe, open environment before things get intimate. If someone makes you feel ashamed about having herpes or responds negatively, they may not be a good partner for you anyway. The right people will love and accept you for who you are.
To keep partners safe, be upfront, kind and open about the situation so you can work together to form a transmission prevention plan that works for both partners. Avoid sex during genital outbreaks and kissing during an oral herpes recurrence. Use condoms regularly—they can't eliminate the risk of transmission of genital herpes completely, but they do significantly reduce it. If you have an outbreak, it doesn't mean you can't still connect in other creative ways. Consider using toys to stimulate a partner. Performing a striptease in front of a partner who is not allowed to touch you can be incredibly sexy, as can touching yourself while they bring themselves to climax.
Talk to your doctor about suppressive antiviral drugs, which can reduce the number of recurrences you'll experience and help protect an HSV-negative partner from contracting the virus from you. Remember that the other person's health status matters, too. The same strategies that help prevent recurrence also decrease a partner's risk of contracting the disease. If they have chronic health conditions or are immunocompromised, they should talk to their doctor about how to minimize risk.
Managing and thriving
The most important element of living with herpes is taking care of your physical and mental health. This includes finding acceptance and confidence, and knowing herpes isn't the end of the world or your life. It doesn't mean you can't find love, have a great sex life or have control over your own body.
All of those desires are still entirely possible.
Treating yourself well, practicing self-care and seeking help from your doctor or a mental health provider are your best weapons against this prevalent virus. Keep in mind that for most people, outbreaks become less common with time. There's hope, and there are millions of people out there fighting the fight alongside you.