Living with Herpes: Advice, Dating and Treatments
Here’s what you need to know about herpes, from talking to a partner to treating the outbreaks.
Published: Tuesday 22 February 2022
Living with oral herpes/cold sores (HSV-1) or genital herpes (HSV-2) doesn’t have to drastically change how you live your life day-to-day. You can still have relationships and be sexually active. However, there are precautions that should be taken to reduce the chances of the virus being spread, which we’ll explore in this article.
What to Do After You Receive a Herpes Diagnosis
After finding out that you have tested positive for HSV1 or HSV2, the 2 types of herpes simplex virus, there’s probably a lot going through your head. You might be feeling embarrassed, angry, anxious, and wondering how this might affect your intimate relationships. Firstly, know that all of these feelings are normal, and common too, seeing as herpes is an incredibly common condition.
What you do after you receive a diagnosis may depend on which type of herpes you have caught, and it helps to get to grips with the facts and fully understand the differences. HSV-1 affects an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population under the age of 50, and typically produces cold sores on the lips and around the mouth, but many people never have symptoms at all. Cold sores aren’t usually classed as an STD because it’s possible to get the HSV-1 virus without sexual contact; since it’s very contagious, you can get the virus through skin-to-skin contact or bodily fluids through either breaks in the skin or through your softer mucous membranes like the inner skin of your lips, eyes or genitals. Many people catch HSV-1 in childhood, perhaps from a kiss from a relative who has it or another form of non-sexual contact with saliva. You can, however, also get HSV-1 by sharing items like lip balms or toothbrushes, especially during an outbreak, but only if used in quick succession as the virus dies very quickly outside of the body.
The majority of people get at least one Sexually Transmitted Disease in their lifetime, and genital herpes is among the most widespread with an estimated 13% of under 50s having the condition worldwide. Caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), genital herpes often presents as blisters on the penis or scrotum, vagina, in or around the anus, on the thighs or buttocks, or even around the mouth, but you may never have symptoms. This strain of the virus (HSV-2) is passed through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, as well as direct genital contact.
Anyone who has ever been kissed or who has had sexual intercourse could have caught herpes, which is the vast majority of adults, so it’s important not to associate your diagnosis with any feelings of guilt, feeling “dirty” or thinking of yourself as a bad person because this is not the case.
Thankfully herpes is not a deadly condition and typically doesn’t pose any serious health concerns. The first flare-up tends to be the worst, and future outbreaks often occur less frequently over time or may stop altogether. With this said, we don’t currently have a cure for the virus, so it will always be present in your body, and becomes most contagious during a flare-up although it is possible to pass it on at any point. We do, however, have medication for suppressing the virus and speeding up the recovery of outbreaks. Popular treatments like Aciclovir and Valtrex (Valaciclovir) are antiviral tablet medications that rapidly treat the symptoms and stop the herpes simplex virus from reproducing.
Do I Need to Tell My Partner About My Herpes Diagnosis?
Whilst it might seem scary to do, talking about herpes with your sexual partner/s is really important to help prevent it from spreading. They can then go for a test themselves and find out whether they’re currently carrying the virus, which will help inform how they go about their future sexual interactions. It’s unlikely to be a fun conversation to have, but the tips below can help it go smoothly:
- Keep calm - millions of people have herpes, many of whom are in relationships and actively have sex.
- Come prepared - enter the conversation with a good understanding of the condition so you can provide answers to any questions your partner may have and clear up the common herpes misconceptions.
- Focus on your partner - try to create the conversation around your partner’s needs, after all, you have already had time to process your diagnosis, and your partner will likely experience many of the same thoughts and emotions that you first felt, and maybe some that you didn’t. Be considerate and come prepared with useful information to help put them at ease.
- Pick your timing and wording - try not to spring this information on your partner when they’re busy or stressed. Using language such as “I carry the herpes virus” instead of “I have herpes” can also be clearer since you may not have an outbreak.
How to Date With Herpes
Broaching the subject with a new partner can be tricky, but it’s absolutely something you should do. This is not to say that on a first date you need to talk about herpes, but certainly before you have sex. Here are some top tips for navigating the conversation:
- Discuss it BEFORE having sex - you need to tell your new sexual partner about genital herpes prior to having sex, and ideally not in bed in the heat of the moment.
- Make it a two-way conversation - by bringing up herpes, you can open the conversation more broadly to sexual health, and you may discover that they too have herpes or another STD. This can be a good way of learning if they’ve been tested before and understanding their attitude to sexual health.
- Be emotionally intimate - it can be scary to have an open and honest conversation about your diagnosis at the start of a relationship but realise that it’s a sign for your partner that you’re respectable and emotionally intelligent enough to raise the topic, and may help you feel even more comfortable around each other.
Tips for Safe Intimacy
Receiving a herpes diagnosis does not mean that your sex life is over. By making sure you are well-read and take the recommended precautions, you can still enjoy healthy sexual relationships. Here are some things to consider before continuing to be intimate with a partner:
- Recognise the risk - you may not be having an outbreak at the moment, but the virus is still transmissible. Always use protection with new partners, such as these Durex Extra Safe Condoms.
- Don’t have sex during an outbreak - try not to have sex with a partner who doesn’t have genital herpes if you’re currently having an outbreak. You are most contagious at this point, and it’s possible to give someone the virus even if you’re wearing a condom, so it’s best to avoid intimacy during this time. With oral herpes, you should similarly refrain from kissing when you have a cold sore outbreak as this is when it’s most transmissible.
- Use medication - take a course of antiviral treatment such as Valtrex or Aciclovir as soon as you notice symptoms of genital herpes. You can instead take a daily dose to suppress the virus and reduce transmission. For cold sores, you can also use these medications, as well as Zovirax Cream or Bonjela Cold Sore Cream, or use a Compeed Cold Sore Patch.
- Know the correct way to use a condom - always make sure that you or your partner are wearing a condom! Knowing the right way of applying the condom is going to increase its efficacy by reducing the chance of transmission and of course getting pregnant. Bear in mind that herpes sores can occur on areas other than the penis or vagina, such as around the genital area or on the anus, so it’s still not advisable to have sex during an outbreak.
- Manage your stress - whilst many people never have more than one outbreak, others may have outbreaks often. Stress can trigger flare-ups of herpes and so having good management of your stress levels may reduce the frequency or severity of future outbreaks.
Herpes outbreaks can be painful, so you may want to take over-the-counter pain medication to help relieve the discomfort. Using a Sitz bath is another great way to ease the pain of genital herpes, as is using a cold compress on the affected area.
For a more detailed overview of the symptoms of both oral and genital herpes, the treatment options and other management tips, read our article on Everything You Need to Know about Herpes.
Authored by Toby Watson
Pharmica Medical Writer
Toby (BSc) is an experienced medical writer, producing educational articles on many areas of health including sexual health, fitness, nutrition and mental health.
He particularly enjoys debunking misconceptions around heath conditions and their treatments, researching each topic in detail and writing easily-accessible content.