Approximately 10 percent of all adults in the United States have genital herpes according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey [cdc.gov]. Although many people believe that a diagnosis of genital herpes means you must give up sex and intimate contact forever, this is not true. You may need to take certain precautions or take medication to help suppress an outbreak and prevent transmitting herpes to your sexual partner. Learning about genital herpes and understanding the myths and facts about herpes can help you take better care of yourself and help protect your partner.
Myth: You can’t spread herpes unless you can see blisters.
This is true of oral herpes but is not true for genital herpes. This type of herpes is often unnoticeable and can still be spread even when you do not have any symptoms.
Myth: A cold sore on your mouth can’t cause genital herpes.
If you have oral sex with someone with a cold sore, you can develop herpes and if you have genital herpes you can spread it to someone through oral sex. While the risk is higher during the initial outbreak, you can contract herpes even if there are no noticeable blisters.
Myth: Using a condom will protect my partner from contracting herpes.
Condoms, while certainly a good idea, do not completely protect your partner from contracting herpes. Condoms reduce the risk and do offer partial protection, however, the condom may not cover all of the areas where the herpes virus is present and so your partner is still at risk, even when using a condom.
Myth: I don’t need to be worried about herpes if I only have a few sexual partners.
Just one contact with someone with herpes can spread the virus. Because it can be spread without noticeable symptoms, it is possible to have sex with someone and not know they have herpes. It is not the number of partners you have, it is having unprotected sex with someone who has not recently been tested for STDs which will put you at the most risk.
Myth: There is no way to medically manage genital herpes.
While there is no cure for herpes, there are medications which help you manage the virus. There are a number of antiviral medications which help stop the virus from multiplying and help to prevent spreading the virus to your partner.
Myth: You have to have penetrative sex to spread herpes.
Herpes can be spread through penetrative sex but can also be spread through anal sex and oral sex.
Myth: You can contract herpes by sitting on a toilet where someone with herpes sat.
The herpes virus quickly dries out when exposed to air. On cold, dry surfaces such as toilets, the virus probably dies very quickly. There have been no proven cases of someone contracting herpes by sitting on a toilet.
Myth: You can always tell when you are having an outbreak because there will be sores and itching.
Genital herpes is often unnoticeable. There may be symptoms of sores and itching during an outbreak but some outbreaks cause no symptoms at all. After several years, outbreaks normally diminish but the virus is still present.
Myth: Herpes can cause you to become sterile.
There are some STDs, for example Chlamydia, which cause sterility, but herpes is not one of them. Having herpes does not decrease your chances of becoming pregnant.
Myth: You shouldn’t have children if you have herpes because you can pass the virus to the child.
It is certainly important to tell your gynecologist if you have been diagnosed with herpes but this should not prevent you from having healthy children. If there is an outbreak when you are in labor, your doctor will decide if a cesarean section is necessary. But if no outbreak is present, you probably can have natural childbirth.
“Genital Herpes,” Reviewed 2011, Sept 12, A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia
“Genital Herpes Fact Sheet,” Reviewed 2010, Apr 28, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Herpes…Myths vs. Fact,” 2010, Staff Writer, The New Zealand Herpes Foundation
“QuickStats: Percentage of Adults Aged 20-29 Years with Genital Herpes Infection,” 2006. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.