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How to Date With Herpes, According to Doctors and Someone Who Has It

Channing Smith

Everyone knows that dating is hard, and finding the One feels daunting. So imagine my horror when I tested positive for HSV-1 and had to try dating with herpes.

If you find yourself in a similar boat, know that I’m writing from the other side. It’s been over a decade since I was diagnosed with herpes, and it’s not just something I’ve learned to live with but a condition I've grown comfortable talking about.

Seriously, ask any of my friends—they can likely retell my diagnosis story verbatim (it was St. Patrick’s Day and my outbreak was initially misdiagnosed as a mosquito bite in my vagina).

That’s not to say it didn’t take me a while to get here. When I was first diagnosed, I was a wreck—and I don’t mean “wreck” in a cute way, like Elle Woods post-Warner breakup in Legally Blonde, throwing chocolates at the TV. No, I had a full-on mental breakdown.

Upon receiving my diagnosis, I convinced myself I was “undatable” and therefore “unlovable,” and devolved into self-sabotage, depression, and substance abuse.

My postdiagnosis helplessness and despair weren't uncommon. One perusal through herpes Reddit proves it: STI shame and stigma is still so severe that it makes some people think there’s no point left in living once you test positive. And while it's really scary to even acknowledge that, I'll admit that I felt that way at first too.

But those fears are just that: fears, not reality. And this fear and shame around herpes makes it seem much worse than it is. “People panic because we are very uneducated about STIs, especially herpes,” content creator Tricia Wise, who runs the HSV empowerment and sex positivity Instagram account @Safe.Slut, tells Glamour. “I thought I was never going to have sex again when I first got it. We're taught from a young age that it's the worst thing possible. It's always the butt of a joke, especially in the media, when in reality, it's not that big of a deal.”

It's true: The post-herpes life I dreaded looks nothing like what it was and is. I met someone, fell in love, and simply had to tell him I had herpes. Ten years later, he's my husband. We celebrate six years married in July, and no, he has not gotten herpes from me.

Post-herpes happily-ever-afters are possible, and not just possible but common. I have countless friends, family members, and acquaintances who openly live with herpes—both HSV-1 and HSV-2 (more on the difference below)—who have gone on to happily disclose to, date, sleep with, marry, and have children with partners. Some have more than one partner at any given time. Some have been engaged and married more than once.

The only reason we don’t know more of these stories is because nobody talks about them. “The very topic of STIs is stigmatized in our society, so people are less likely to talk about it,” says Giokazta Molina-Schneider, VP of education and training at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. “This is one reason they are so commonly transmitted.”

Peter J. Stahl, MD, SVP of sexual health and urology at telehealth platform Hims and Hers, says the same. “Unfortunately, there’s a societal stigma surrounding herpes, which is mainly due to misinformation and a general lack of knowledge,” he explains. “In reality, herpes is very common. It's a highly treatable disease and people with herpes go on to have very healthy and enjoyable dating lives.”

Dating with herpes might be hard, but that's only because dating is hard period, not because of HSV.

Still, it can be helpful to educate yourself on what it means to live with and potentially transmit HSV. This way, you can go on to educate your future partner(s) accordingly—or, at the very least, calm yourself down about what it really means to live with your newly acquired virus.

Ahead, everything you need to know about dating with herpes, according to doctors specializing in sexual health and people who have the disease. You've got this; I promise!

How common is herpes?

“More than half of Americans have oral herpes, and about one out of six Americans has genital herpes,” says Molina-Schneider. “So chances are a few people you know are living with herpes.”

According to Dr. Stahl, the most recent reported annual data from the CDC reported 572,000 new genital herpes cases during 2018 among people aged 14 to 49. “They also estimated that about 12% of 14-to-49-year-olds in the US have genital HSV-2 infections, which is the most common form of the virus that causes genital infections,” he says. “However, up to 90% of patients with genital HSV do not know they are infected.”

That last part is key: Herpes is more common than we realize because so few people know they have it in the first place. The only way to know for sure is to test while having an active outbreak or have a blood test done; herpes tests are not included in standard STI screenings.

Is herpes curable? How do you treat it?

“Herpes infections are not curable, but herpes outbreaks are treatable and manageable,” says Andrea Sleeth, APRN and medical operations lead and medical adviser at online sexual health platform Wisp.

There are a variety of genital and oral herpes treatments that can help prevent outbreaks, alleviate symptoms, and lower the risk of transmission, including antiviral medication like valacyclovir and acyclovir, acyclovir cream for cold sores, lidocaine pain cream, Cover Up! Patches, L-lysine supplements to prevent HSV viral replication, and more.

What’s the difference between oral herpes (HSV-1) and genital herpes (HSV-2)?

I hate to break it to you, but there isn't a “better” or “worse” form of herpes: Cold sores are herpes just like genital herpes is, and both need to be treated equally in terms of disclosure. “HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different members of the same family of viruses,” Dr. Stahl explains. “HSV-1 mostly causes oral herpes (cold sores), whereas HSV-2 mostly causes genital herpes.”

But while HSV-1 typically affects the mouth and lips and HSV-2 more commonly affects the genitals, both forms of the HSV virus can cause either oral or genital herpes. Such is the case for me: My herpes is technically the HSV-1 strain but, because it presents in my genitals, counts as genital herpes.

“This is not commonly known, so if someone has sex with their partner and one of them has a ‘cold sore’ on their mouth, they can get HSV-1 on their genitals which acts very similarly to HSV-2,” adds Molina-Schneider. “And you can get HSV-2 in your mouth if you give oral sex to someone with HSV-2 on their genitals.”

How is herpes transmitted?

“HSV is unfortunately very transmissible, which is part of the reason why HSV infections are so prevalent in the population,” says Dr. Stahl. “Viral spreading and the likelihood of transmission is higher during active outbreaks, but most transmission actually occurs during asymptomatic periods in between outbreaks.”

Those asymptomatic periods in between outbreaks are also known as “shedding,” adds Sleeth. “Herpes can spread invisibly through a sneaky process called viral shedding,” she says. “After HSV replicates in your body and makes its home in your nerve cells, it occasionally travels along the nerves back up to the surface of your skin to shed itself. From there, it once again has the potential to infect others through kissing and sexual contact.”

When this happens without any previous outbreaks, the person with HSV often has no idea they even have the virus, nor do they realize they're transmitting it. Hence the importance of going out of your way to test for herpes!

In good news, shedding does tend to occur slightly more frequently if you have visible HSV symptoms (otherwise known as an outbreak). “People with asymptomatic HSV-2 shed the virus approximately 10.2% of days, while people with visible symptoms shed closer to 20.1% of days,” she says. Still, there’s really no way to determine whether you’re shedding at any given time, she says.

Now, if you're thinking, Oh no, my sex life really is over! please note that you don't even need to have sex with someone to get or transmit herpes—which is exactly why the stigma is so silly. You wouldn’t judge someone for accidentally getting a cold, right?

“Sometimes herpes can be passed in nonsexual ways, like if a parent with a cold sore gives you a peck on the lips,” Molina-Schneider says. “You can spread herpes to other parts of your body if you touch a herpes sore and then touch your mouth, genitals, or eyes without washing your hands first. You can also pass herpes to someone else this way.” So please, keep washing your hands.

How can I decrease the risk of transmitting herpes to my partner?

“So this is the thing about herpes: There's no such thing as safe sex; there's only safer sex,” says Wise. “Sex with anyone, regardless of who it is, is always going to be a risk. So you have to understand and know that you can get herpes or an STI from literally everyone.”

That said, there are several precautions that can and should be taken to lower the risk of transmission through sex in particular. “Being proactive can be very helpful in reducing the risk of transmitting HSV to sexual partners,” Dr. Stahl explains. “While no one strategy is perfect, adhering to multiple risk reduction strategies can meaningfully reduce transmission risk.”

Avoid sex during outbreaks.

“First, it is important to avoid genital-to-genital, mouth-to-mouth, and genital-to-mouth contact during active outbreaks,” says Dr. Stahl. Even with condoms.

Always use protection.

“Always use condoms or dental dams during oral, anal, or vaginal sex,” says Sleeth. However, Dr. Stahl notes, the use of condoms reduces transmission risk by only about 30%.

Try suppression therapy.

According to Dr. Stahl, suppression therapy with antiviral medication like valacyclovir (Valtrex) can reduce the risk of transmission by about 50%. This can be taken daily or as needed during outbreaks.

Make healthy lifestyle choices.

Taking care of yourself overall can also help prevent outbreaks. “Whether or not you take medicine to treat herpes, taking care of yourself by eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and avoiding stress might help keep future outbreaks from popping up,” says Molina-Schneider. “No one knows for sure what triggers genital herpes outbreaks. Other infections, surgery, sex, your period, skin irritations, and stress may cause outbreaks. Sunburns, injuries to your lips, or other infections can cause oral herpes flare-ups. Try to avoid getting sunburned if you have oral herpes.”

How to tell your partner you have herpes

The truth is, there is no perfect time or way to tell someone you have herpes. But it's still the right thing to do before you're sexually active.

Tell them before you have sex.

“If you’re just starting to date someone, you might not need to tell them the very first time you hang out, but you should let them know before you have sex,” suggests Molina-Schneider. “When the relationship starts heading down that path and you feel like you can trust the person, that’s probably a good time.”

Come prepared and ready to educate.

Then try to go into into the conversation with a calm, positive attitude, and prepare to potentially educate your partner. “There’s a lot of misinformation about herpes, so read up on the facts and be prepared to set the record straight,” Molina-Schneider adds.

Understand that they might need time to process.

Unfortunately, some people might not take it well, Molina-Schneider concludes. “If that happens, try to stay calm and talk about all the ways there are to prevent the spreading of herpes,” she says. “You might just need to give others a little time and space to process the news, which is normal. Most people know that herpes is super common and not a big deal. But if someone makes you feel stigmatized, ashamed, or guilty about having herpes, they’re probably not a person you want to share intimacy and your heart with, anyway.”

Herpes disclosure script examples

If you're unsure exactly what to say, there are a few ways to go about it. “There is no one-size-fits-all script for these situations; it takes a great amount of courage to initiate an open conversation about your sexual history in a new or short-term relationship,” says Sleeth. “I always recommend being open with your partner, allow them to ask the questions, and provide them with the educational tools they need to understand that a herpes diagnosis is not the end of a relationship.”

Herpes disclosure script sample 1

Says Sleeth: “It could look as simple as, ‘There's something important I'd like to talk to you about. I value honesty and openness in relationships, so I wanted to let you know that I have [genital or oral] herpes. It's a common virus that I manage with medication, and I take precautions to reduce the risk of transmission. I understand if you have questions or concerns, and I'm here to talk about it. Ultimately, I care about your well-being and want to ensure we make informed decisions together.’”

Herpes disclosure script sample 2

Dr. Stahl agrees, and recommends you find the right time away from other distractions and that you know your facts about the disease so you can answer any questions they may have. “Here's an example: ‘This is really uncomfortable for me, but I need to share something with you. I have genital herpes. I was diagnosed several years ago, but I manage it through medication, no skin-to-skin contact during outbreaks, and using condoms during sex. I know this may be hard for you to hear. What questions can I answer for you?’”

Herpes disclosure script sample 3

Wise prefers disclosing either on a first date or while chatting on a dating app. “Once I know sex is on the table, I'll be like, ‘When were you last tested?’ And they'll respond, then I say, ‘I was tested recently, and was negative for everything, but I do have HSV-2. Do you know what that is?’ Because a lot of times they don't know what it is. And I've only received really positive responses of people either being uneducated of being like, ‘I don't know about that, tell me more,’ or, ‘My ex had it so I totally know all about it,’ or, ‘I have it too,’ which is always a very fun response to get!”

Then, depending on how much her partner knows, Wise shares additional information about HSV. “I explain that we shouldn't be stigmatizing people who have it generally, when cold sores are very much a normal part of society and no one really discloses that when it's the exact same thing,” she says. “Usually people just want more information, so I try to keep it short, sweet, and confident.”

Danielle Sinay is the associate beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @daniellesinay.


Originally Appeared on Glamour