If you’ve recently been diagnosed with HSV-1 or HSV-2 (genital herpes), you might feel confused, scared, and possibly angry.
However, both strains of the virus are very common. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 1 out of every 6 people ages 14 to 49 have genital herpes.
It can be shocking to hear the word “herpes” in the doctor’s office. If you’re caught off guard or overwhelmed, you may not register what your medical provider is telling you, says Dr. Navya Mysore, family doctor and primary care provider.
Mysore says genital herpes can be caused by HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus) or HSV-2. “HSV-1 is most commonly related to cold sores, which a large amount of the population have. However, HSV-1 can also be the virus that causes genital herpes (via oral sex) and HSV-2 can be the virus that gives you cold sores,” she says.
While at the doctor’s office, don’t be afraid to ask all the questions you may have, and make sure you ask for clarification if you don’t understand something.
One of the first steps most people take after a diagnosis is to inquire about treatment options. While there is no cure for herpes, sexual health expert Dr. Bobby Lazzara says you can manage it enough to reduce the number of outbreaks and minimize the risk of transmission to future sexual partners.
He says herpes outbreak prevention may involve taking a once- or twice-daily antiviral medication, and the treatment of active outbreaks involves topical treatment, an antiviral medication, and sometimes a painkiller. “Maintaining a consistent medication schedule is key to successfully managing herpes and preventing active outbreaks,” he explains.
Since this news can come as a shock, it can be difficult to process all of the diagnosis and treatment information in one appointment. That’s why Mysore always suggests having a follow-up visit after the initial diagnosis to see how someone is coping. “It can be emotionally hard and it’s important that people have a support system around them to help them cope and understand what next steps are,” she adds.
Between your appointments, create a list of questions you have about your diagnosis. That way you won’t forget anything.
Once you have a treatment plan, the next steps require you to make some difficult decisions about your personal life and the people you’re intimate with. Here are a few tips to help you tell a sexual partner that you have herpes.
Send the message before you have sex
The conversation needs to happen before having sex and hopefully not in the heat of the moment. Alexandra Harbushka, founder of Life With Herpes and spokesperson for Meet People With Herpes, says a great way to lead with the topic is talking about both parties’ sexual health, and insisting that you both get tested.
Focus on your partner
When you tell your partners, Harbushka says you need to create the conversation around their needs. They are going to have questions for you concerning their health and will want to know how they can avoid contracting the virus.
Choose your language wisely
Mysore often suggests that her patients avoid saying “I have herpes,” and instead try something like, “I carry the herpes virus.” She says this will be clearer since you don’t always have an outbreak.
Be direct but positive when introducing the topic
Harbushka recommends starting with something like this: “I like where our relationship is, and I’m not sure where it’s headed, but I’m excited to go on that journey with you. I’d love to take the step and sleep/have sex (insert whatever word is comfortable for you), but I find it important to talk about our sexual health first.”
Pay attention to their response
Once you share this information with your partner, it’s critical that you see how they respond and listen to what they are saying.
Explain why sexual health is important to you
After that, says Harbushka, it’s a great time to disclose your sexual health, which would include herpes. Recommend you both get tested.
Having the herpes virus does not mean that your dating life is over. There is no reason you cannot continue meeting and dating people, as long as you’re willing to be open and honest with them about your diagnosis. Here are some tips for dating with herpes.
Be willing to communicate
A herpes diagnosis does not mean the end of your sex or dating life,” says Lazzara. But it does require some responsible maintenance and communication with both your sexual partners and your physician.
Don’t be afraid to get emotionally intimate
An open and honest conversation about your diagnosis can require emotional intimacy that may be scary to have in a new relationship. Harbushka says to relax and realize that it can be sexy to communicate with your partner about sex and other important intimate topics.
With the right information and adequate protection, you can still enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. Here are some tips to help you and your partner stay safe during sex.
Recognize there is always a risk
Even though most people are only shedding the virus for a short period of time, Mysore says you cannot completely eliminate the risk. That’s why she says you need to use protection 100 percent of the time with new partners.
Taking a daily antiviral can help suppress the virus as well as the asymptomatic shedding, says Harbushka. One study found that taking an antiviral daily can reduce transmission. This strategy is not appropriate for everyone, but may be reasonable for some people with genital herpes.
Know the correct way to use a condom
Lazzara stresses the importance of consistent and correct condom use, which can provide significant protection against the spread of herpes. Plus, avoiding sexual interaction while experiencing an active herpes outbreak will also minimize the risk of transmission. Read our guide for proper tips on how to use outside and inside condoms.
Manage your stress
Finally, stress often triggers a new herpes outbreak, so Mysore suggests having good stress management skills and living a healthy lifestyle, which can help in future outbreaks and therefore lessen the chance of transmission.