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How to Check Herpes Stigma

By Kathleen Morrison
November 10, 2023

The holidays are a perfect storm of factors that can trigger a herpes outbreak—holiday-related stress, travel anxiety, a change in diet, cold weather, lack of sleep, or just a simple winter flu can all lead to a bout of cold sores or a genital outbreak. During this time, the last thing you want to deal with are jokes and comments about herpes. It’s time to take your power back! We’re breaking down a few ways you can clapback against friends and family this holiday season and beyond to help dismantle herpes stigma.

How you can clapback against herpes stigma

Before we get into the facts, here are a few quick ways you can get the last word when it comes to herpes stigma.

If they say: “At least I don’t have herpes!”
You can say: “How do you know? The majority of people have it and don’t know their status!”

If they say: “I know I’m clean, all my STD screens come back negative!”
You can say: “Herpes testing isn’t included in standard STI screening, and the tests aren’t very reliable. Better to just use condoms to reduce your risk!”

If they say: “Ew, only [insert insult for sexual promiscuity here] people have herpes!”
You can say: “Fun fact: most people are exposed to herpes as children when they get kisses from parents and loved ones!”

If they say: “Ugh, having herpes seems awful.”
You can say: “Did you know the majority of people with herpes don’t experience any symptoms? And for those who do, outbreaks are more of an annoyance than anything else.”

If they say: “People with herpes are irresponsible and unsafe!”
You can say: “Herpes is a normal part of dating! Partners who communicate their status are safer than those who don’t.”

Stigma comes from ignorance

Like all kinds of stigma, herpes stigma mostly stems from ignorance. Most people aren’t aware of how common herpes really is and you can help educate them! There are a few reasons why people don’t realize herpes is all around them.

Herpes is mostly asymptomatic

Although the numbers are murky, it is estimated that only 10-25% of people with genital herpes ever experience symptoms (the numbers are slightly higher for oral herpes, but it is thought the majority of people with oral herpes are asymptomatic or have extremely mild symptoms). Most infected persons likely will never know they are positive for HSV—in the United States, an estimated 87.4% of 14 to 49 year olds infected with HSV-2 have never received a clinical diagnosis.

Testing is very unreliable

This is because the herpes virus is not present in your blood—blood testing tests for the presence of antibodies against HSV-1 or 2. A 2005 study regarding a common herpes blood test found that index values above 3.5 yielded over 90 percent accuracy—but scores between 1.1 and 3.5 had over 65% chance of being wrong. The most reliable way to be tested for HSV is to go to a doctor for a swab of an active outbreak where the lab can confirm the presence of the active virus. However, we already know that many people will never experience an outbreak, or may only ever experience one outbreak (see the first bullet). All of these factors contribute to the reason the majority of people will never know their herpes status.

###The CDC does not recommend herpes screening without the presence of symptoms This is because of the limits of a herpes blood test mentioned above, and the possibility of a wrong test result. It can take 16 weeks to test positive for HSV, if you test positive at all, so if you do decide to test, it’s important to follow up with another test after 4 months. It takes time for your body to develop the necessary antibodies to test positive on the blood test. Plus, the fact that the CDC doesn’t include herpes screenings in their recommended guidelines means that it usually isn’t covered by insurance—and we all know how expensive out-of-pocket healthcare costs are in the US.

It’s important for anyone who has sex to accept that STIs and herpes are part of the package! There is no such thing as completely safe, risk-free sex—there is just safer sex. Herpes is part of the process of pursuing love, connection, and intimacy with other human beings.

Herpes is treatable

Much of the stigma around herpes comes from the idea that it’s “incurable.” While this is true, that doesn’t mean that HSV is untreatable, or that people with HSV spend their lives suffering. For the majority of people, they deal with outbreaks much in the same way anyone would deal with an acne breakout or the occasional canker sore—apply some medicine and get on with life! Antivirals like Acyclovir and Valacyclovir can help prevent outbreak duration, reduce severity, and help prevent transmission to partners. Painkillers like Lidocaine Cream help manage any painful symptoms that pop up along with your outbreak. Plus, natural supplements like L-Lysine can help boost immunity and keep outbreaks from returning. Letting friends and family know that there are multiple treatment options out there can help normalize the condition—how many people do you know who take regular supplements or a daily medication? Herpes management is just like that!

The impact of stigma

Even those who have good intentions may not realize the ways that they are contributing to the harm caused by herpes stigma—it’s an easy thing to ignore if you don’t deal with symptoms or outbreaks. Many people say, “The stigma is worse than the disease.” While the physical symptoms of herpes can be relatively minor, having to carry the weight of a diagnosis can be hugely detrimental to an individual’s mental health. They may feel depressed, isolated, even suicidal if they feel they will be rejected from society, or unable to find love. Educating loved ones about the impact their negative words can have may help them think before they speak. Whether they know it or not, they know someone who has herpes who may feel hurt by their comments or jokes—being mindful and kind is free, and helps fight the stigma!

The #1 way to smash herpes stigma

Disclose, disclose, disclose! While it can feel scary, talking about your own diagnosis once you’re comfortable is a great way to connect with those closest to you about herpes stigma. The reality is that stigma is driven by a fear of the unknown—it’s easy to say people with herpes are dirty or gross if you think you don’t know anyone who has it. It’s much harder to continue thinking that if you know your best friend, sibling, aunt, uncle, or favorite cousin has herpes. Suz Elżbieta (@suzbubs on IG and Tiktok) and Chase Cramer (@chaseinsexed on IG and Tiktok) are two young people being loud about their diagnosis—you don’t have to go that far, but it can feel good to take back control of your diagnosis and fight back against unfair herpes narratives. Help them spread the word! Education will always be a strong way to fight back against stigma of any kind, but being able to look at a herpes hater and confidently say, “I have herpes—so what?” is a showstopper 😉 You’ve got this!

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