Herpes: Is It Good to Be Symptomatic?
A herpes diagnosis carries a tremendous amount of unwarranted shame and guilt, in part from the assumption it's an "unclean" disease. However, herpes is extremely common, as it's incredibly easy to transmit and is a livable condition; 2 in 3 adults worldwide have herpes (either HSV-1 or HSV-2).
If you can contract herpes easily and live a normal, healthy life with it, what is everyone so up in arms about? The shame comes from societal pressures from those who don't understand the virus placing undue judgment and jumping to conclusions.
Most people with herpes don't show outward signs, which can lead to increased rates of covert transmission. So what should you look out for to stay informed about your health?
HSV-1 and HSV-2
HSV-1 is the strain of herpes responsible for cold sores, so it's generally known as oral herpes, though it can in some cases cause genital herpes. Most genital herpes cases, however, are due to an HSV-2 infection, and those cases are more likely to recur than genital herpes cases from HSV-1.
HSV-2 affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men. This statistic does not include genital herpes caused by HSV-1, so that means our population has even more cases of genital herpes than reported.
Complications of being symptomatic
As with many other sexually transmitted infections, people who are infected with herpes often do not show symptoms. For this reason, some go their whole lives without realizing they have the virus. The CDC does not recommend testing for genital herpes in asymptomatic patients, as it's not proven to reduce spread or cause a patient to practice safer sex behaviors.
People with herpes (of either variety) go through periods of viral "shedding," meaning their bodies are producing the virus, making them more contagious. Again, this happens whether you exhibit symptoms or not.
What this means, though, is that—during the shedding period when the virus is at its most contagious—those that have the herpes virus but don't exhibit symptoms are completely unaware that they are major spreaders.
Conversely, if you have the herpes virus and show symptoms, you can communicate to potential partners that you are unable to touch, kiss or have sex until the virus is through shedding and your symptoms have cleared up. You may be just as contagious as others who present no symptoms but at least you know to stay away from your partner(s). Think of the sores and other herpes symptoms as the body's alert system: Once they've cleared up, those with HSV-1 or HSV-2 can become physical with other people again.
You could say that people who are aware of their herpes infection and communicate adequately with partners can be much safer sexual partners than those who aren't even aware they have the virus.
While there is no cure for herpes, there are medications to take to reduce the severity of outbreaks, contagiousness and frequency of flare-ups. Both the HSV-1 and HSV-2 tend to shed or flare when your immune system is down, so taking care of yourself, getting rest and staying hydrated are all good ways to keep the virus at bay.
Considering the life-threatening and infertility-causing effects of other sexually transmitted infections, the herpes virus is much lower stakes in comparison but consider that you are more likely to contract other STIs, such as HIV.
Overall, having a partner who shows symptoms and informs you of their status is safer than having a partner who, maybe like you, is still in the dark about their infection.