Genital Herpes

Living with Herpes: Herpes, Dating, and Your Sexual Health

Key Takeaways

The first thing you need to know about herpes is how common it is. Odds are, you already know someone else who’s dealing with herpes. 

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 491 million people between ages 15–49 have an HSV-2 infection — that’s 13% of all people on Earth in this age category! On top of that, an estimated 3.7 billion people under 50 (67%) have an HSV-1 infection.

Years of public health education have removed some of the stigma around herpes, but not all of it. This article will give you the knowledge and tools to move forward with your diagnosis — which, we promise, you can live with.

Keep reading to find out:

  • Basic facts about herpes
  • How to deal with your first few outbreaks — physically and mentally
  • How to talk to partners about herpes
  • How to prevent further herpes outbreaks

Basic facts about herpes

  • There are two main types of herpes simplex virus: HSV-1, most commonly associated with cold sores, and HSV-2, most commonly known as genital herpes
  • While HSV-1 mainly causes oral herpes, it can also cause genital herpes and be transmitted through oral sex.
  • Most oral and genital herpes infections are asymptomatic –– that means you can be living with herpes but never experience an outbreak. 
  • Symptoms of herpes include painful blisters or ulcers at the site of infection.
  • While there is no cure for herpes, the disease is quite manageable with antiviral treatment and topical creams. 
  • Herpes is most contagious during symptomatic outbreaks, but it can still be transmitted without symptoms.

While this article is focused on how to live with herpes, you can learn more about the actual herpes virus here

How to live with herpes — physically and mentally

If you’re experiencing your first herpes outbreak, the first thing you’ll need to do is see a doctor about your sexual health and receive treatment. 

Physical treatment for herpes

While there is no cure for herpes, treatment can shorten the length of an outbreak and manage any pain associated with lesions. Here are some oral (pill) treatment options:

All three drugs work pretty much the same, and one study showed that all of them tend to speed up healing time by about one to two days. But the key is to start treatment as soon as you notice signs of an outbreak — herpes treatment is most effective when it’s taken within 48 hours of first symptoms, which is a tingling, itching, or painful sensation on the site of the infection.

You can also use acyclovir topical ointment to treat lesions, which works for both oral herpes and genital herpes. 

If you’re experiencing a lot of pain, you may want to ask your doctor to prescribe a painkiller or take some over-the-counter pain medication. Here are some other ways to manage pain during a herpes outbreak:

  • Apply cold compresses to the infected area
  • Keep the lesion(s) clean and dry
  • Wear loose clothing and underwear that breathes

Mental health care for herpes

After you receive treatment for your first outbreak, the next thing to do is take care of your mental health and learn how to cope with your diagnosis. 

You may want to find a support group in your area for people living with herpes. Meetup hosts the following herpes support groups in Toronto and Vancouver:

Joining a support group will accomplish two things:

  • Build your knowledge of what it’s like to live with herpes
  • Show you that you’re not alone in your experience with herpes

If you need to speak to a counsellor about your herpes diagnosis, you can also call the Ontario Sexual Health Infoline at 1-800-668-2437.

Dating with herpes and talking to sexual partners about herpes

Dating with herpes doesn’t need to be a big deal. Most people with genital herpes can still have satisfying sex lives.

Yes, there are some things you’ll need to do to date responsibly and take care of your sexual partners — like using protection, even when you’re not experiencing an outbreak — but that doesn’t mean your dating life will be nothing but awkward moments and heartbreak. 

The most difficult part of having a conversation about herpes with a sexual partner is getting started. You may fear the other person’s initial reaction more than anything else, rather than the conversation that happens after they’ve had time to digest new information. 

Here are some conversation prompts to help you get over that initial hump:

Herpes coming out prompts: New relationships

Option 1: “Before we have sex, I want to let you know that using condoms/barrier methods are important to me. I found out a little while ago that I carry the herpes virus, which means that using protection is a must for us to have sex. How do you feel about this?”

Option 2: “I like where our relationship is going, and I want that relationship to be based on open communication. I found out a while back that I carry the herpes virus, and I want you to know that I’m here to answer any questions about what that means for us.”

Herpes coming out prompts: Existing relationships

Option 1: “I have some news to share — I found out that I carry the herpes virus, and I think it’s important for you to get tested. I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming you for my diagnosis, because a lot of people have herpes without any symptoms. Let’s talk about how you feel after you’ve had some time to think.”

Option 2: “I need to have a chat about some news I got recently — I found out I have herpes. I’ve talked to a doctor and I’ve done some research, and it’s not a major problem — but you’ll need to get tested and we’ll need to start using protection. How do you feel about this?”

Key conversation points about herpes

When you’re dating with herpes, the most important actions you can take are to:

  • Use protection — even when you’re not experiencing an outbreak
  • Be direct and clear — your partner shouldn’t be left wondering about the status of your diagnosis
  • Let your partner process their emotions and ask questions
  • Offer your partner more information  
  • Ask your partner to get tested (if you’ve already engaged in sexual activity)

How to prevent further herpes outbreaks

Great news –– you can prevent herpes outbreaks with the right treatment. 

The same treatment used to treat outbreaks can also be taken as a preventative measure. But daily suppressive antivirals may not be right for everyone, so you’ll need to ask your doctor if this type of treatment is worth it for you. 

According to one study, people who see six or more genital herpes outbreaks per year can see a 70%–80% reduction in outbreaks with daily antiviral treatment. 

You may also be able to reduce herpes outbreaks by reducing stress. A meta-analysis of the relationship between psychosocial stress and symptomatic herpes simplex virus recurrence revealed “a robust relationship between psychosocial stress and symptomatic HSV recurrence.” You may want to take some deep breaths and develop some solid stress management strategies.

Talk to a doctor who can help

Remember, the herpes virus can cause genital herpes and cold sores. While treatment is similar for each, prevention methods and treatment decisions can vary a lot. Start an online visit with one of our healthcare practitioners to discuss your options.

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