In the U.S., an estimated 15.7 percent of people aged 14-49 have genital herpes caused by HSV-2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Others may have a genital herpes infection caused by HSV-1. Despite the fact that genital herpes is so common, many harmful myths still exist surrounding the virus.
Although some people believe a herpes diagnosis means the end of your sex life, this is simply not true. While there are certain precautions you should take to prevent transmission, you can still have a healthy sex life with the virus. Understanding the myths and facts about herpes can help you take better care of yourself and protect and educate your partners.
Myth: You can’t spread herpes unless you can have visible sores.
Herpes is transmitted when a person has direct contact with the sores during an outbreak; however, the herpes simplex virus can be present on the skin even when you do not have any visible symptoms. Many people with herpes have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. According to the CDC, people with HSV-2 who don’t have symptoms “shed” the virus on about 10 percent of days, versus about 20 percent of days for those with HSV-2 who do have symptoms. Therefore, while it’s less likely, it’s possible to transmit the virus even if you aren’t experiencing noticeable signs of an outbreak.
Myth: A cold sore on your mouth can’t cause genital herpes.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus (typically HSV-1). If a person with a cold sore performs oral sex on their partner, their partner is at risk of genital herpes infection, according to the CDC. 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 guarantee that I won’t infect my partner with genital herpes.
Condoms, while they certainly reduce the risk, do not completely protect your partner from being infected with herpes. Condoms offer partial protection, but they may not cover all of the areas where the herpes virus is present on the skin. Therefore, your partner is still at risk, even when you use a condom.
Myth: I don’t need to be worried about herpes if I only have a few sexual partners.
It’s a myth that only “promiscuous” people get herpes. Just one instance of contact with someone with herpes can spread the virus. Because it can be transmitted without noticeable symptoms, it is possible to have sex with someone and not know they have herpes — they may not even know themselves.
Myth: There is no way to medically manage genital herpes.
While there is no cure for herpes, there are certainly medications that can help you manage the virus. Antiviral medications can reduce the length and severity of a herpes outbreak, and they can even decrease the frequency of your outbreaks if you take them on a daily basis. Taking these medications also lowers the risk that you will transmit the virus to a partner. It can also be helpful to know that, even without medication, most people with herpes will notice that their outbreaks come less often over time.
Myth: The only way to transmit herpes is by having penetrative sex.
Herpes can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Myth: You can get herpes by sitting on a toilet used by someone with herpes.
The herpes virus quickly dries out when exposed to air, so it is highly unlikely that it could live on a cold, dry surface such as a toilet seat. There have been no proven cases of someone getting herpes by sitting on a toilet.
Myth: Herpes can cause infertility.
There are some STDs, like chlamydia, that can lead to problems with fertility if left untreated. Genital herpes, however, 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 a healthy pregnancy with healthy children. If you have an outbreak when you are in labor, your doctor will decide if a cesarean section is necessary.
Myth: There is nothing you can do to reduce the risk of infecting your partner with herpes.
There are actually several effective steps you can take to avoid transmission, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. First, communicate to your partner that you have genital herpes before having sex. Remember that latex condoms and antiviral medications also can reduce the risk of transmission. Lastly, get to know your body: You may have what are called “prodromal symptoms” before your outbreaks that can give you a heads up that one is coming on. Then you can avoid sexual contact from that point until the scabs from the sores have gone away.
This is an update of an article originally written by HealthCentral contributor Eileen Bailey.
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Lara is a digital editor for HealthCentral. She is the site’s staff writer, Sexual Health editor, and email newsletter chief. Previously, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs, where she became obsessed with learning about women’s health, and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com. Connect with her on Twitter @laradesanto.