There’s a whole lot of stigma around sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and herpes is one of the more stigmatized.
This stigma often comes from not-actually-funny jokes in TV shows and movies that suggest herpes is a terrifying diagnosis, something you really don’t want to get.
Fear and confusion about herpes also stems from misinformation and general lack of knowledge.
If you’ve absorbed any of this negativity and have just received a diagnosis yourself, you might be feeling all kinds of emotions: anger, shame, numbness, even depression.
I had a few bleak moments during my first outbreak — mostly grim thoughts about my future dating prospects.
A genital herpes diagnosis can feel life-altering. And in some ways, it is.
You’ll have to have the conversation with every new partner, for one. You also can’t predict or control outbreaks, though medication can help.
But herpes doesn’t change you. It doesn’t mean you’ve had sex unwisely. It also doesn’t mean your sex life is over.
Many people will have no problem seeing past your diagnosis to the person beyond: someone worthy of love and affection.
Herpes isn’t as awful as some people make it out to be, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Sure, you’ll need to make a few changes going forward, including telling potential partners about your diagnosis before getting busy and learning to recognize signs of an outbreak.
But you can absolutely continue dating and engaging in sexual activity.
There are two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), HSV-1 and HSV-2. Herpes generally refers to genital herpes (usually caused by HSV-2), but cold sores (often caused by HSV-1) are also herpes.
Either form of the virus can show up in either area of the body (mouth or genitals). HSV spreads through sexual contact, including oral sex.
You can even contract the virus when using condoms or other barrier methods, because sores often appear in places not protected through barrier use, such as the buttocks and thighs. (Learn more about the two viruses here.)
If your partner has cold sores and performs oral sex, or performs oral sex when you have genital herpes sores, the virus can spread.
People often contract herpes this way, especially if they don’t know how the virus is transmitted.
You can also contract herpes through other skin-to-skin contact.
I got it when my partner had a cold sore. We didn’t kiss, and he didn’t perform oral sex, but there was plenty of finger-to-genital contact.
We suspect that at some point he absentmindedly touched the sore shortly before touching me. (The lesson here: Always, always wash your hands — and make sure your partner does, too.)
Herpes doesn’t have a cure, at least for the moment. But here’s the thing: It’s just a skin condition — nothing more.
You might have sores right now, every few months, once a year, or never again. And those sores will clear up before long. They might not affect your life as much as you imagine — even when it comes to dating.
Herpes wasn’t completely unknown to me, even before I got it myself.
Besides the partner who got cold sores, the girlfriend of one of my regular (nonmonogamous) partners was positive for HSV-2. So, I knew it was possible I might eventually contract the virus myself.
When I had my first outbreak, it helped a lot that I knew people who didn’t see it as a big deal.
All the same, I still worried what future partners would say, since I also knew people (including past partners) who saw herpes as a definite deal breaker.
The strategies below helped me maintain a positive outlook.
It’s a good idea to figure out how you want to start the “I have herpes” conversation before getting back into dating.
Maybe you learned your positive status some time ago and have put off dating simply to avoid that conversation.
I can absolutely relate. It’s tough to share your diagnosis with someone you really like and risk them possibly losing interest.
But they could also say “That doesn’t bother me,” or even “So do I.”
Be sure to make the diagnosis clear. “I recently tested positive for HSV-2” may not cut it, since not everyone knows what this means.
You might try:
- “I recently tested positive for HSV, the herpes virus, but I’ve never had an outbreak.”
- “I occasionally get herpes outbreaks, but I take medication that reduces the chances of transmission.”
You need to have this conversation with every new partner, even if you haven’t had an outbreak in a long time, have never had an outbreak, or plan on using condoms or another barrier method.
The virus can spread asymptomatically, even when using a barrier, so it’s important to make sure your partner understands the risk — which is often very low, but never zero.
If you’re like me, you might want to get the conversation out of the way early on to save yourself some disappointment.
I immediately added my diagnosis to my dating profile, thinking, “Why bother getting close to someone who isn’t comfortable with it?”
But waiting to disclose has merit, too. Just be sure you do disclose before any activity that might put your partner at risk.
Consider this: Most people don’t share all their secrets on (or before) the first date. A few dates can help you get a feel for someone and more insight on whether you even want to continue pursuing a relationship.
What’s more, developing a bit of a bond first can also encourage them to take more time to fully consider the pros (your fabulous self) versus the cons (small risk of transmission over time).
For what it’s worth, I noticed fewer matches after updating my profile, but I still had plenty.
Once you start experiencing symptoms you can transmit the virus, so paying attention to early symptoms can help reduce the risk of transmitting it to a partner.
Along with that sort-of-itchy, sort-of-painful tingling feeling that I get before the sores appear, I notice tenderness in my mouth, fatigue, a low fever, and aches in my legs.
You might only get these symptoms with the first outbreak, but they can return. Returning symptoms are usually more mild than before.
A sudden outbreak can be disappointing, especially if you were looking forward to an intimate evening.
But it’s important to remember that your worth isn’t tied to your diagnosis. You’re still the same person, outbreak or not.
If you don’t truly believe this, your words might reflect your self-judgment, and you might end up pulling away or conveying the message you do have something to feel embarrassed about (which you totally don’t).
Instead of saying something like:
- “We can’t have sex tonight… I understand if you don’t want to come over after all.”
Try something like:
- “Tonight’s a no-go for sex, so let’s cuddle up with a horror movie.”
The second validates the reality that you still have a lot to offer in the way of companionship. And don’t forget, a hot makeout session can be pretty sexy. Think of the tension you’ll build up!
Sex is an important component in many romantic relationships, but it shouldn’t be the only thing keeping your relationship going.
To help your relationship thrive, practice connecting with your partner in other ways.
You might try:
- taking long, romantic walks
- sharing stories about the past
- getting into a new hobby together
- sharing goals for the future
- simply existing in the same space
You might have heard herpes can easily spread through using the same towels and soap or sitting on the same toilet seat.
Soap and water kills the virus, so if you touch sores to apply medication, all you have to do is wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
That said, herpes does spread through skin-to-skin contact, so you could potentially pass the virus if you and your partner both sleep in the nude. Make sure you both break out the pajama bottoms during an outbreak.
There’s no current cure for herpes, but you still have several treatment options.
Prescription antiviral medication can help reduce outbreaks and decrease transmission risk. If you’d like to try it, talk to your healthcare provider.
If you’d rather avoid medication for now, you do have other treatment options — which you might already know if you, like me, spent the day after your diagnosis frantically Googling “how to heal herpes sores faster” and “best treatments for herpes.”
You can find 37 home remedies for herpes here. Every person is different, of course, but I’ve found these treatments helpful:
- baking soda paste
- cold aloe vera gel
- baking soda or oatmeal baths
- supplements, including lysine, vitamin C, and probiotics
Stress can be one of the biggest contributors to regular outbreaks, so decreasing the stress in your life is also key.
I know, I know. Easier said than done during a pandemic. Consider giving these tips a try:
If you tell your partner about your diagnosis and they’re OK with it, take them at their word instead of worrying they’ll change their mind later.
It’s smart to discuss precautions and avoid sexual activity during outbreaks. You might also encourage them to come to you with questions. (Read up on FAQs here.)
But beyond that, doubting and second-guessing your partner can create unnecessary anxiety and stress, and eventually have more of a negative impact on your relationship than the virus itself.
Since my first outbreak, I’ve had two additional ones. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m writing this article during an outbreak.)
I’ll be the first to say outbreaks are no fun, but most of the time I forget I even have the virus.
You may miss out on some dates. But you’ll probably find many people just don’t care — and those who don’t care often have more interest in developing a meaningful connection, anyway.
Above all, remember this: Your diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.