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Living With Herpes

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Updated April 05, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

There are some conversations that change your life. If a doctor has ever diagnosed you with genital herpes, you may remember that conversation as one of them. Genital herpes is a frightening diagnosis for many people. Society may have exposed them to messages suggesting that people with herpes are dirty or somehow flawed. However, genital herpes is just a disease like any other--a disease, in fact, that affects approximately one in five Americans.

I've Been Diagnosed With Genital Herpes! What Do I Do Now?

The first thing you need to do after you've received a genital herpes diagnosis is sit down and take a breath. Do some research and learn all you can about the disease. You were probably diagnosed because you experienced an outbreak. Although it may have been scary and painful, don't panic. Since you have had one outbreak, you will probably have several more over the next year. Over time, however, your outbreaks will become less frequent. There is medication that you can take to help relieve your symptoms, reduce the frequency of outbreaks, lower the amount of virus in your system, and make it less likely that you will transmit the virus to someone else.

If you were diagnosed with genital herpes because your current or former sexual partner told you that you might have been exposed to the virus, it is possible that you will never have a noticeable outbreak. The vast majority of people with genital herpes have asymptomatic infections. If you didn't have a symptomatic outbreak within a month after you were initially infected, you may never experience genital symptoms. However, that does not mean that you can ignore your infection. Genital herpes can be transmitted even in the absence of symptoms, something that you should realize since that was probably how you became infected with the disease.

I'm Never Speaking To The Person Who Infected Me Again!

When you are first diagnosed with genital herpes, you may want to find someone to blame. Try not to. Since most people with herpes have no symptoms, your partner may not have known that he or she was putting you at risk. If, however, you are in a relationship with a person who knew that he or she was infected with the herpes virus and lied to you about it, you might consider whether or not they are someone you can trust.

Before you judge your partners, however, evaluate your own activity. Were you responsible about STD testing? Did you always practice safer sex when it was appropriate? Did you disclose any sexual health issues before you had sex with each new partner and ask about his or her own history? It's unfair to hold others to standards you cannot uphold yourself.

What Should I Tell My Partner?

Telling your partner you have genital herpes may be one of the hardest things about being diagnosed with the disease. Whether you have been together for years, or you're just starting out, the conversation will be difficult--but it is one you need to have. Start by being comfortable with the information yourself. Know how herpes is transmitted and how you can reduce the risk of giving it to your partner. If you have been together for a while, recommend that your partner be tested for the virus. If you are starting a new relationship, testing is still a good idea.

Because condoms aren't 100% protective against herpes, there is always the possibility that you will pass the disease onto your sexual partners. Consistently using male or female condoms and other barriers for all sexual contact, including oral, anal, vaginal, and manual sex, will greatly reduce the risk of transmission. So will taking suppressive therapy, which lowers the amount of virus in your system. However, both you and your partner should remember that you can transmit the virus even if you don't have any symptoms.

Will I Ever Have Sex Again?

Herpes doesn't need to be the end of your sex life. Although safe sex techniques are not 100% effective, consistently using condoms and other barriers, and avoiding sex during outbreaks, will greatly reduce the likelihood that you will infect your partner. You should also avoid sex when you feel itching or tingling under your skin or other symptoms that suggest the herpes sores are soon going to appear (the prodromal period before an outbreak.)

It is important to know that herpes can be transmitted through oral sex. Cold sores, which are oral herpes, can be transmitted to the genitals and vice versa. Furthermore, having oral herpes does not protect you from getting genital herpes, and it may be even more contagious than its counterpart.

Dating with herpes can be stressful. It may be more difficult to find new partners. But when you are open and honest about your infection status, there will continue to be people who want you enough to take the risk. There are also dating services specifically for individuals who have been diagnosed with herpes and other STDs. Remember, one in five adults is infected with the herpes virus. Herpes dating, and finding someone to love, may not be nearly as difficult as you think. However, even if you have both been diagnosed with genital herpes, it is still wise to practice safer sex.

What Else Do I have To Worry About?

You are at increased for HIV and at a higher risk of transmitting HIV if you have herpes--another reason to use barrier protection. Still, herpes is not a disease that will affect most areas of your life. Outside of sexuality, the main aspect of your life that herpes can cause problems with is child bearing. Because herpes infections can be extremely dangerous to infants, women with herpes should talk to their obstetricians about how to minimize the risk to their future children. The greatest risk of transmission to the infant occurs in women who become infected with the herpes virus during pregnancy, so people should be especially cautious with new sexual partners during this time.

Who Can I Talk To?

There are support groups for people with herpes in many cities. There are also online support groups at various websites, including the Living With STDs forum here on the Sexually Transmitted Diseases website at About.com.

Tell your stories here!

Sources:

CDC Herpes Fact Sheet

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