Despite the fact that genital herpes affects millions of people directly, it also affects millions of others indirectly. People who don’t have genital herpes may look to the person who does for answers. The trouble is, many of the people with the condition are confused or ill-informed themselves. So why is genital herpes such a puzzle?
There are some straight answers about the herpes virus but there are also mysteries. Why, for example, does herpes act differently in different cases? How is it possible that some people get the virus after just one sexual encounter whilst others, who have been together for years, have never passed it from one person to the other? Why do some people only ever get one or two outbreaks while others seem to get them all the time?
For some people the puzzle begins at the point of diagnosis. Perhaps they feel some discomfort and itching or stinging around the genitals. Maybe they see a bump or two, but it’s enough to encourage a visit to the doctor. The doctor may suspect herpes and so a swab is taken and sent for analysis. Bizarrely, the results could come back negative, even though the person actually has the virus. Has there been an error at the laboratory? Well that’s a possibility, but so is the fact that the virus isn’t always on the surface of the skin and so avoids detection. For this reason diagnosis is more successful with a blood test as this can detect antibodies to the herpes virus.
This tells us something about how the herpes virus works. It enters the body via any mucous membrane, so this includes the inside of the nose, the eyes, or even via cuts on the skin. The virus can be transmitted to the genitals from receiving oral sex from someone with herpes on their mouth and vice versa. Once contracted, the virus lives inside the body - always. From time to time the virus will pay a little visit to the surface of the skin and at that time the person is contagious. It sounds simple enough but the puzzle is that it’s almost impossible to know when. By the time the infected person sees the signs of an outbreak the virus itself may have retreated.
So, we move to a point where the reality of having the condition hits home. A diagnosis of genital herpes is sometimes just the start of an uncomfortable journey involving bafflement, recriminations, suspicion, confusion, fear, concern, betrayal, guilt - you name it. Although initial outbreaks often show up days or weeks after infection, the virus can actually take years before it shows itself. This can leave the infected person confused about who may have passed the infection to them and guilty that they have passed it to others without realizing.
But life moves on, and one of the concerns that infected and non-infected people have is about transmission of the virus. It is not, as some people think, sufficient to put on a condom. A condom certainly helps to reduce the risk of infection, but sores occur in areas not covered by the condom. In any case, it is a myth that herpes is only contagious when an active sore is present. Possibly up to 70 percent of people with with herpes don’t get noticeable symptoms. Living with herpes presents its own challenges and the puzzle for many is how best to do this.
The herpes virus may be something of a puzzle but it shouldn’t prevent you living life to the full. It does however bring a responsibility. For many people the biggest challenge is whether they can continue to have an active sex life. It is vital to tell a potential sexual partner that you have the virus. The other person then needs time for this to sink in and to make an informed choice before they commit. In turn, the infected person may need to prepare themselves for rejection. It’s not easy, but the alternative of knowingly passing the virus to another person doesn’t really bear thinking about.
Many people find ways of keeping outbreaks to a minimum by living a healthy lifestyle, reducing stress, getting regular sleep and perhaps avoiding foods or drinks they feel might contribute to outbreaks. Puzzles are there to be solved and in this respect, the herpes virus is no different.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.