Over 50% of Americans have oral herpes, and one in every six people has genital herpes. Herpes is incredibly common, so why aren’t we talking about it like it’s normal? There is a huge stigma that comes with herpes and other sexually transmitted infections in general. The truth is herpes is fairly common, and it’s also not a big deal. It’s just a skin condition.

What is herpes?

Herpes is a viral infection that once you get it, it stays in your body forever, although there are ways to manage it. There are two types of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is also known as oral herpes or cold sores, and this can spread from any sort of contact with someone. It doesn’t have to be spread sexually. Oral herpes presents itself as cold sores, and these can be spread from person to person quite easily. You could even get oral herpes as a child from a relative giving you a peck on the lips. 

HSV-2, or genital herpes, is spread through sexual contact. Genital herpes is spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. It is possible to get HSV-1 on your genitals and HSV-2 on your mouth, but generally speaking, they thrive in their designated area of the body. If you have a cold sore and give someone oral sex, you could spread oral herpes to their genitals, for example. 

How do you test for herpes?

You can be infected with herpes and show no symptoms for years, so it’s really hard to know when exactly you got infected. The only true way to know if you have herpes is to get tested once you already have symptoms. If you’ve ever gotten regular STD testing done, you might notice that they don’t test for herpes as part of the regular screening. This is because herpes testing is incredibly inaccurate if you don’t have symptoms. 

Herpes can be tested for without symptoms through a blood test, but false positives are incredibly common. When I first learned this, it seemed bonkers to me! I should be able to get tested and know if I have it or not, right? Why is testing for herpes so complicated but I can get a clear answer for a test for other STDs even without symptoms? Part of the reason false positives are so common is that the herpes blood test just tests for HSV in your body. It doesn’t distinguish if you have HSV-1 or HSV-2. Because oral herpes or cold sores are so incredibly common, most people have been exposed to HSV-1, even if they’ve never shown symptoms. 

So if you got a blood test and tested positive, it’s quite possible it just shows you’ve been exposed to cold sores before, but there’s no way to know for sure if the test is detecting HSV-1 or 2. Ugh! Because herpes is so stigmatized and the possibility of having an STD is very anxiety-inducing for most people, doctors don’t recommend testing for herpes unless you have symptoms. You also cannot complete at-home testing for herpes as you can with some other STDs.

What are the common herpes symptoms?

Symptoms of genital herpes include blisters around your genital area or your inner thighs. These blisters are often itchy and painful and turn into sores. You can also experience flu-like symptoms like aches, pains and fever if you have HSV-2. If you have sores, go to your doctor and they’ll swab one of the sores and test that for an accurate reading. If you don’t have symptoms, there is nothing to treat anyhow because even if you have the virus, it will be in your body forever.

How is herpes spread?

Herpes is a little tricky though because you could be asymptomatic and still spread the virus to someone else. This is called asymptomatic shedding. You could have herpes, but not know it because you have no symptoms, and have oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone and spread the virus to them without even knowing. Using condoms and dental dams can help prevent this from spreading, but this is why herpes is so common. I wonder though if you don’t have symptoms, and your partner never has symptoms, then does it even matter that much? Again, there’s nothing to treat if you don’t have symptoms.

What is a herpes outbreak?

If you do have symptoms and test positive for genital herpes, there are some things you can do. Most people that have genital herpes experience only several outbreaks throughout their life. Although the virus isn’t curable, you won’t have constant symptoms and it’s not detrimental to your health or sex life in any way. An outbreak is when the sores and other symptoms show up. 

For most people, this first outbreak occurs 2-20 days after your first exposure, but you might not show symptoms for years so it’s hard to know. The first outbreak is the worst and lasts from 2-4 weeks. You can take anti-viral medication and use home remedies to treat the discomfort. The anti-viral medication can make your outbreak shorter and also can be taken regularly to severely lower your chances of spreading herpes to a partner. You should wait until your outbreak clears, however, to engage in sexual activity. 

How can we end the stigma of herpes?

When you break it down, herpes is just a skin condition. Yes, it can be spread sexually, but oral herpes isn’t spread that way. Genital herpes gets such a stigma attached to it because it is a sexually transmitted infection, but it is incredibly common and won’t affect your overall health or wellbeing. People that have herpes have completely normal, unaffected sex lives. Just refrain from sex during an outbreak, talk to your doctor about anti-viral meds to prevent it from shedding when you’re asymptomatic and be open with your partners so they can fully consent to sexual activity with you.

It’s important to keep up with your sexual well-being and get tested after each new sexual partner, or every 6 to 12 months but you don’t need to worry about herpes until and unless you show symptoms. You’ll make yourself sick with worry wondering if you have it. Since it truly is just a skin condition, you don’t need to worry too much about it until you have something on your skin to treat. The blood tests are so inaccurate that it isn’t recommended to get those done anyway. There are plenty of other STDs you can get blood tests for, so focus on those as part of your sexual well-being and get tested for herpes only if you show symptoms.