By Mia Abrahams
Like a lot of things in the world of sexual health, STDs are sometimes (unfortunately) shrouded in mystery, misinformation, and, of course, taboo. We’ve spoken about the common ones like HPV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia before, but another real biggie here is herpes. As Lauren Duca said in her great piece for Teen Vogue, “We treat herpes as a punishment or a punchline, when really it's a simple fact of being a sexually active person.
So, in the interest of clearing up any *alternative facts* you may have picked up, here are five things you should know about herpes.
Herpes is super-common
More than half of Americans have oral herpes, and about 1 in 6 Americans has genital herpes (fun mental exercise for your Wednesday evening commute). Basically, there’s a good chance some people you know have some form of herpes. Whether you have herpes or not—and I know I sound like a broken record—wear a condom if you’re getting down with new people (or they’re getting down with new people etc.). And if you do have herpes, these stats are proof you are not alone, not by a long shot.
There are two types of herpes viruses
It can be kind of confusing because there can be oral herpes and genital herpes, but there are *two* different types of the herpes virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Let’s break it down: You can get HSV-1 or HSV-2 on or around your genitals (vagina, vulva, butt, inner thighs) — that’s called genital herpes. You can also get HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus on your lips, mouth, or throat — that’s called oral herpes (or cold sores).
HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes, and HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes, BUT it’s totally possible for both types of herpes to infect either area (aka, if someone with a cold sore goes down on you).
Herpes doesn’t always have symptoms
Who hasn’t freaked out over an ingrown hair, but the signs of herpes aren’t always clear (and if you’re ever unsure, you can always check-in with your doctor or healthcare professional to find out what’s going on). So what does genital herpes feel like when you have it? Groups of itchy painful blisters that might break into sores, burning when you pee, and general itching and pain around your genitals. The first time you have an “outbreak” (sorry, dramatic I know, that’s just what it’s called) it’s usually the worst, and can last 2 - 4 weeks. You can also get flu-like symptoms (swollen glands, fever, chills, headache, feeling achy and tired) if your herpes is caused by HSV-2.
Herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact (not from toilet seats, coughing, or holding hands!)
Herpes spreads pretty easily from someone who has the virus, usually during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. It can spread even if you have sex without complete penetration, or if there’s no cum. Herpes is most contagious when sores are open, but can also be passed along when your skin looks normal (it’s a sneaky virus, dammit!). The best way to reduce your risk of getting herpes is to use protection, like a condom, and not have sex with anyone during a herpes outbreak, as that’s when the virus is most easily spread (Planned Parenthood has some good, non-freak out tips here, too).
There’s no cure for herpes, but it’s not a life sentence
Yep, there’s no cure for herpes. But!! (and it’s an important but!!!) a herpes diagnosis doesn’t have to be totally scary or intimidating or mean your sex life is over forever. There are plenty of ways to manage symptoms and all kinds of medications to make outbreaks go away quicker and come back less often (chat w/ your doctor about this stuff). Plus, while herpes outbreaks aren’t fun, the first is usually the worst. Luckily, repeat outbreaks tend to be shorter and less painful, and sometimes stop all together.
The best way to combat STD stigma is communication, whether that be with your partner or your doctor. It’s important to get tested regularly, so you know your STD status, as well as making sure you practice safe sex (see — broken record!).
How do you talk to a sexual partner about safety and status? Share your tips for having this kinda awkward but super-important convo in the comments below. Stigmas, shmigmas!