Pretty much everyone has it.
OK, so the majority of people have it. Just this year, the World Health Organization released a study that estimates two thirds of people in the world (67%) have the HSV-1 strain of the herpes simplex virus — that’s approximately 3.7 billion people worldwide. While HSV-1 typically refers to oral herpes infections, it also includes some genital infections. The new report estimates that half of the HSV-1 infections in people between the ages of 15–49 are actually genital infections transmitted via oral-to-genital contact. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people have genital herpes.
It’s possible to have herpes and never have an outbreak.
Cullins explains that even if you’ve never had an outbreak, if you’ve been exposed to herpes, it lies dormant in your body. A blood test could reveal antibodies for HSV-1 and/or HSV-2, which means that you have been exposed to the infection in your past, you have been infected, and you have developed antibodies because your body has or is fighting the infection.
Generally, you get fewer outbreaks the longer you have the infection.
Cullins explains that the first, or initial, outbreak is usually the worst, and “over time when you have recurrent episodes, you may not have systemic symptoms” or frequent symptoms. But everyone’s body and immune system reacts to the virus differently; while some people may never have many outbreaks, other people may be more chronically symptomatic. The National Institutes of Health indicate that infrequent outbreaks, around one or two per year, are not uncommon.
Outbreaks might be much more frequent when you’re pregnant.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 30% of pregnant women in the United States have genital HSV. During pregnancy, people are immunocompromised so that their body doesn’t fight the fetus as a foreign invader. And when a person’s immune system is weakened, they are more likely to have herpes outbreaks. According to Cullins, “Pregnancy is the time period when [a provider] really wants to know whether or not the person has had herpes in the past,” so they can protect the pregnant person and their infant from a herpes infection.
Herpes can be dangerous if it’s transmitted from a mother to a baby, but as long as you don’t have an outbreak during labor, vaginal delivery is safe.
“You don’t want an infant delivered through infected birth canal or vulva because the infant can be infected,” Cullins explains. A neonatal herpes infection is a real risk because it can cause problems with brain development and eye and skin infections, or even be fatal. And since there is more risk for transmission from mother to baby during an initial outbreak than during a recurrent outbreak, the CDC stresses that it’s incredibly important for pregnant women to avoid contracting a new herpes infection.
Having herpes doesn’t necessarily mean that someone was reckless or practicing unsafe sex, nor does it tell you anything about someone’s number of partners or sexual behavior.
“Someone having HSV doesn’t mean that they were reckless or irresponsible with their sex life,” says Sara, age 30. “I used condoms with all my partners, and I still caught it.” For Jamie, who contracted herpes from her husband three years into their monogamous relationship, he was her first and only sexual partner. And she says that he contracted it from one of his very first sexual encounters. No matter how and why someone contracted the virus, it doesn’t erase their humanity and right to respect.
The negative stigma around herpes can actually be worse than herpes itself.
A 2014 article in The Atlantic reported that “The stigma of the virus…is usually worse than the symptoms themselves, as it affects dating, social life and psychological health.” King says that for the people she sees in her herpes support group, the stigma is the biggest issue that they face.
“Most people don’t give their symptoms much of a second thought,” she says, “because for most of them, the symptoms are minor and go away after a couple days.” She says what they really struggle with is the question and reality of what it means to have herpes in our society.
Prevention makes it very possible for an HSV+ person to have sex or be in a relationship with an HSV- person and never transmit the infection.
Particularly when someone is on suppressive antiviral medication and practicing safer sex, risk of transmission can be greatly reduced. Cullins suggests female condoms (condoms that go inside the vagina and cover most of the vulva, though it’s important to note that not all people with vaginas are female) to provide the most protection against transmission, though condoms that go over the penis will protect what they cover.
According to Cullins, there are no standardized guidelines from the CDC for suppressive therapy through medication, but it is an option that people with HSV should talk to their healthcare providers about. “If a person knows they have had herpes in the past that has affected their genitals, they can take suppressive therapy — for example, 500 mg of valacyclovir daily.” While it won’t prevent outbreaks, it will prevent asymptomatic virus shedding. Preventing exposure to the virus through both medication and a physical barrier can be very effective.
People with herpes are more than their diagnosis.
People with herpes are just as deserving of love as people without it. Having herpes is just one more thing about someone. “The majority of the women I’ve worked with go on to have partners and herpes becomes a non-issue in their life,” King says. “You can get over it and go on to have a normal life.”