For lots of us, just mentioning herpes evokes instant panic and a rush to end talking about it. The stigma and lack of education around this virus has evolved into such a massive taboo monster that many are left feeling lost when we actually have questions about it. You have probably heard the jokes, “horror” stories, and victim-blaming of herpes… but that doesn’t help us truly understand what herpes is. Considering 1 in 2 people have oral herpes, and 1 in 6 have genital herpes, this incredibly common STI deserves the same care and understanding we give other health conditions. To help address all the misconceptions about herpes, I compiled a list of the herpes myths we hear most.
Only promiscuous people get herpes.
This is most definitely not true. Herpes can be easily spread without sexual contact. In fact, you may have received oral herpes from your grandma giving you a simple kiss when you were a baby, or you may have caught it from wrestling during elementary school PE. Since herpes can be dormant in someone’s system for a long time before an outbreak, it’s almost impossible to know exactly when a person was infected.
Someone with herpes will always know it.
It’s possible to have herpes without symptoms, or with minor symptoms that you don’t recognize as herpes. Outbreaks can come and go with a long stretch in between. Genital herpes can also be so mild sometimes that you can easily mistake an outbreak for something else, like a blemish or ingrown hair.
Herpes can be cured.
Unfortunately, no. There is currently no cure for a herpes infection, which stays with a person for life. However, this virus typically stays dormant in a person’s system for long periods of time and only appears when the person is stressed or sick. And there are highly-effective medications available to help manage symptoms and outbreaks, and to even prevent outbreaks.
You can only transmit herpes when you have an outbreak.
This is one of the biggest herpes myths. Herpes is an interesting virus in that even when a person has no symptoms or outbreaks, there is still the possibility of transmitting the virus. Though the risk of transmitting herpes is highest right before, during, and immediately after an outbreak, there is a chance that somebody with absolutely no symptoms will infect someone else. The best way to reduce transmission risk is to take preventive medication like valacyclovir daily, and use condoms.
A condom totally protects you from herpes during sex.
This is probably the myth we hear the most about herpes! Though male condoms provide some protection against herpes (and are a great option for protection against other STIs!), it does not fully protect you. Since herpes can spread through casual skin-to-skin contact, you can get herpes from a patch of skin not covered by a condom. You can also get oral herpes by giving oral sex to someone with genital herpes, and get genital herpes by receiving oral sex from somebody with oral herpes (this is all true regardless of gender).
You can get herpes by trying on bathing suits.
Thankfully, this is not true! Herpes doesn’t survive well outside of the body and can’t “live” on other surfaces for a long enough time to infect you. According to the CDC, you cannot get herpes by sharing towels or trying on bathing suits. There are a lot of other not-great infections you can get by trying on bathing suits, however, so make sure you’re still using other hygienic options – like keeping your underwear on as you try on bottoms.
Herpes is included in most STD/STI testing.
Nope! Herpes is very rarely included in an STD/STI test. Although there are blood tests for herpes, most experts agree this is not the most accurate way to be tested, and the tests lead to false positives. It’s better to wait for an outbreak and have the blister swabbed by a healthcare provider and sent to a lab. Since an outbreak will have a high concentration of the virus in one spot, your doctor will be able to more confidently determine whether you have herpes.
Treating herpes is expensive.
Thankfully, all the treatments associated with herpes are fairly inexpensive. You have several options for treating an infection. If you experience a lot of outbreaks that are painful and problematic, we recommend taking daily preventive medication. If you get one outbreak per month or less, it might make sense to simply have medication on hand so you can take it when you feel an outbreak coming on (tingling and redness are often signs). If taking pills is very difficult for you or you only get maybe one outbreak per year, just using topical over-the-counter medication to help with pain relief may be your best choice. Regardless of the type of treatment you choose, medication is typically fully covered by insurance or is only $25 (or less!) per month when you pay out-of-pocket.
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