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Herpes & Cold Sores

Having Sex With Someone Who Has Herpes

By Lizzie De la Cruz
You may feel any number of emotions at finding out a current or previous sexual partner is positive for herpes simplex virus (HSV), the virus that causes herpes. Shock, fear, and shame are all incredibly common reactions, along with confusion, embarrassment, and maybe a feeling of betrayal. How you found out can also play a big role in your response. Did you receive a courtesy phone call, or did you merely wake up to a new and painful tingling between your legs? Embarrassment and shame can quickly turn into worry and panic about what to do next.

What happens after hooking up with someone and finding out they have herpes?

Take a deep breath. It’s valid to feel betrayed after having sex with someone who has herpes, only to find out after the fact. But the truth is that there’s no script for these situations; it takes a great amount of courage to initiate an open conversation about your sexual history in a new or short-term relationship—and you can imagine how many times someone has kicked off a night of raucous sex (with a newly-found friend) by combing through your respective sexual histories.
The other thing that makes herpes difficult to navigate is that many carriers of HSV 1 or 2 don’t know they have it. An asymptomatic carrier presents no obvious physical symptoms are there are lots of carriers out there! Estimates vary, but the CDC estimates that about 1 in 6 people have genital herpes and according to the National Institutes of Health, about 90% of adults have been exposed to the virus by age 50. It’s almost certain that during your lifetime, you’ve kissed, shared a passionate makeout sesh, or had sex with someone who has herpes. Saliva transfer in the presence of an open sore on the mouth is the most common way to transfer the herpes simplex virus, but it’s also possible to pass the virus when no sores are present. Whether kissing or engaging in something more intimate, the virus passes between partners via skin-to-skin contact. Many individuals experience their first outbreak early in childhood from nonsexual contact with saliva (think: a sloppy kiss from the one extra lovey aunt who happens to get cold sores) and then live their lives unaware that they even have—or can spread—the virus.
With most Americans living with HSV-1 or HSV-2, the truth is that herpes carries an incredibly low health risk and, other than managing outbreaks a couple of times a year, it’s truly nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the CDC does not prioritize testing for herpes in standard STD screenings because of how low of risk herpes is to your overall health. 
Check out Episode 1 of The Wispering Podcast, with Symone Elena, to hear more about "The Shock" of an STI diagnosis.

What should I do if someone I hooked up with tells me they have Herpes?

First, don’t freak out. Just because you hooked up with someone who is positive, doesn’t mean you have herpes. And don’t shame your partner for letting you know! Yes, it would've been better had they told you beforehand, but now you can move the conversation forward to create a basis of trust and honesty, particularly if you plan on dating this person.
Even if your encounter was a one-night stand, there is a strong chance you’ll come across someone else down the line in your personal life that has herpes. A good place to start is by gathering a little more information.
If you’re going to continue having sex with someone who was diagnosed with HSV-1 or HSV-2:
  • Be open to talking about it with your partner — it’s no longer the elephant in the room, now you can nurture trust and learning. This will help your partner feel comfortable letting you know when they are symptomatic.
  • Individuals are more likely to spread herpes the first year after contracting the virus (this doesn’t necessarily mean diagnosis). After this first year, with proper use of antiviral herpes medication and a healthy lifestyle, their chances begin to decrease significantly.
  • Asymptomatic shedding is a process that the body naturally goes through to combat the virus. This term refers to your body actively shedding, or releasing, the herpes virus. A person can still pass herpes to someone else when no symptoms are present if their immune system is shedding the virus. This occurs about 1 out of every 10 days and usually only lasts 12 hours for most people. The more outbreaks someone has, the more they shed the virus.
How long has your partner been diagnosed? Do they know their own body and symptoms that occur before an outbreak? If you feel comfortable doing so, going to a doctor together to ask questions and learn more can be a great first step to preventing transmission (and a great way to bond!).

Do condoms prevent Herpes?

Using condoms isn’t foolproof in preventing the spread of the virus but it will decrease your chances of contracting the virus. Prescription antiviral medication for the HSV-positive partner will also greatly reduce the odds of transmission by reducing the amount of virus in the body and can definitely be a way to protect the HSV-negative partner from contracting the virus.

Can I get Herpes from oral sex?

In most cases, genital herpes is passed along through anal or vaginal intercourse, but if you're dating someone with HSV-2, you can also get HSV-2 from performing oral on your partner if they have genital herpes, even if they aren't currently having an outbreak. It’s also possible to transmit HSV-1 (the virus that often causes cold sores) to your partner’s genitals via oral sex. The mouth, vagina, and urethra are all lined with mucous membranes that enable the herpes virus to jump a bit easier from one person to another.
If you are in a relationship where one partner has HSV-2 and the other does not, taking suppressive antiviral medication can greatly reduce the likelihood of outbreaks and transmission. Another way to reduce the risk that your partner will contract the virus is by using a dental dam as a barrier during oral sex. A dental dam is a thin piece of latex or polyurethane that you stretch over your genitalia during oral sex. The materials used for a dental dam are the same ones used for condoms, so they are thin enough not to detract from the sexual experience. In fact, you can even DIY a dental dam using a condom.

How to break the Herpes stigma

If you’re here, that means you’re curious about learning the facts around herpes and maybe you know what it’s like to feel ashamed or judged about your body. The moment we understand that any STI, including herpes, isn’t the end of the world, or even the end of your sex life, is a moment when we can begin to appreciate the complexity of other human beings.
Talking about these things rather than being afraid of social or romantic repercussions will open many doors for clarity and happiness, in the bedroom and beyond. Just because you or your sexual partner has herpes doesn’t mean they have been promiscuous or unsafe. Remember, you can get herpes while wearing a condom, you can pass it along without any symptoms, and you can get it before you’ve even had sex—so there’s no reason to pass judgment on someone just because they have a positive diagnosis.
It’s important to note that someone may have contracted herpes years before ever seeing symptoms—this includes you. It’s possible your partner didn’t know they had the disease and only found out after you two had sex. It’s also possible that you could be carrying it yourself and passed it along unknowingly—now your partner is experiencing their first outbreak. There’s no use in pointing fingers at this stage, that only leads to shame.

Should I get tested for Herpes?

You can go to a doctor to get a blood test to see if you have antibodies to herpes, but antibodies only suggest that you’ve been exposed and won’t determine if you’ll have future outbreaks. As a result, testing is generally not a great indicator of whether or not you are going to spread the virus during sex (and tends to lead to unnecessary anxiety).
Most doctors will recommend testing only during an outbreak. Due to the numerous herpes-related viruses that humans carry—think chickenpox—testing often renders both false negatives and false positives. However, when an outbreak occurs, your doctor can swab the sore itself to deliver a more accurate result.
If you have contracted HSV-1 or HSV-2, just remember that it’s not the end of your sex life. There are suppressive meds that prevent future outbreaks in a significant percentage of people. You can easily get meds online and even have them delivered regularly so you stay on track. Taking suppressive meds doesn’t mean you get to avoid having the conversation about herpes, but it gives you and your partner the best starting place to have a healthy conversation—and in turn, a healthy sex life. Think of it as a great way to get to know someone before jumping in the sack.

Can I have sex with Herpes?

Even if you’re been diagnosed with herpes, your sex life isn’t over! Knowledge is power. Even if this was a one-night stand, knowing what to look out for within your own body is key. 1) Managing the symptoms of an outbreak with medication and 2) using barrier methods like condoms and dental dams are the best way to avoid passing herpes during sex. Make sure you have open and honest communication with any current and future partners so everyone is educated and making the decisions that are right for their health.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are sharing your story or listening to someone share theirs, remember to talk it out. Show this person—even if they aren’t a long-term thing—that it’s not scary to talk about these sensitive topics. Ask, or share, some information about how often outbreaks occur. Gauge what experience either of you has had with the virus. Ask how it feels to share about it. Encourage each other to be upfront in the future.
You can also reach out on social media for community (and give @hellowisp a follow while you’re at it)! Lots of herpes activists are taking steps to #BreakTheStigma by talking about their diagnoses, their experiences, and how they navigate difficult conversations with their partners. One thing they aren’t doing? Giving up on their sex lives! Having herpes doesn’t mean living a life of celibacy—you’re still a complete person who’s allowed to live a full life. You’ve got this. 

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