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FAQ on Dating with Herpes

Dating with herpes is possible, but to do it safely, the right knowledge and education are essential for everyone involved in a relationship.

What should you know about herpes?

Herpes isn’t exactly a popular topic of conversation, which may be why many people don’t know that there are billions of people across the world who carry the herpes virus. It’s actually one of the most common STIs. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 have herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and an estimated 417 million people aged 15-49 worldwide have herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Clearly, it is important to know how to safely date with herpes.

Most people are also unaware that there are quite a few varieties of herpes. Of the over 100 known variations of the herpes virus, there are 8 that can infect humans. Those 8 types are HSV 1 and 2, varicella-zoster virus, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, human herpesvirus 6 (variants A and B), human herpesvirus 7, and Kaposi's sarcoma virus or human herpesvirus 8. 

HSV-1 and HSV-2 are the most common viruses. HSV-1 is an oral herpes infection and is typically transferred from person to person orally. When active, it is extremely contagious. HSV-2 is a genital infection and is typically transferred from person to person genitally. It is also possible for the infection to move from an oral location to a genital location (or vice-versa). Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections are lifelong conditions without a cure.

There are three specific herpes infections that merit discussing in greater detail. Herpes gladiatorum is caused by the HSV-1 virus. Herpes keratitis and herpetic whitlow can be caused by the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus.

  • Herpes gladiatorum —This infection is also called “mat herpes” because of its association with wrestling (and other contact sports). It is a common condition that can show up anywhere on the body. If it shows up in the eyes, it must be treated as a medical emergency. 
  • Herpes keratitis — This is a herpes infection in the eye. Though it can be caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2, it is most commonly caused by HSV-1. Typical transmission happens when a person touches an active sore and then their eyes.
  • Herpetic whitlow — This is herpes on the hand and/or the fingers. Early signs of an outbreak include red or swollen fingers, until a blister (or cluster of blisters) forms.

How Do I Know If I Have Herpes?

When a herpes infection is active, it is often referred to as “having an outbreak.” During this time, there are typically noticeable sores on the body. Symptoms of an HSV-1 outbreak include painful blisters or open sores (commonly called ulcers) in or around the mouth. Sores on the lips are often referred to as cold sores. It’s also possible to have a herpes infection on the tongue.

An active HSV-2 infection has similar signs and symptoms to an HSV-1 infection, but the locations of the sore are different. Sores can be both internal or external. Labial herpes sores, anal herpes sores, cervical herpes sores, thigh herpes sores, or vaginal herpes sores are all possible. Pain and itching are also common signs during an outbreak. Women may experience vaginal discharge and pain when they pee as well.

After the first infection, the sores can reappear periodically, although symptoms usually decrease over time. There is no true pattern for when or how often the sores reappear.

For most, the first outbreak is the most severe. The initial sores are often accompanied by fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Tingling or burning sensations often occur before the sores appear. By being on the lookout for these early signs, you may be able to predict when an outbreak is about to occur. After the first infection, the sores can reappear periodically, although symptoms usually decrease over time. There is no true pattern for when or how often the sores reappear.

One of the trickiest things about herpes infection is that it may have no signs or symptoms. Your care provider may call this “asymptomatic herpes.” For those who are living with herpes or those who are dating someone with herpes, this is very important to remember. The infection can be transferred to your partner even if you do not have active sores. 

With the help of your care provider, the best way to determine whether or not you have herpes is through herpes testing. This can be a part of standard STD testing; however, neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the US Preventative Services Task Force recommend testing for herpes unless you are showing symptoms. A herpes test can be done in three ways:

  • Viral culture: This involves taking a tissue sample or scraping the sores for examination by a laboratory.
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test: This test takes a sample from your blood, tissue from a sore or spinal fluid. The DNA in the sample is then tested for the presence of HSV (and which type).
  • Blood test: This test analyzes a sample of your blood, looking for the presence of antibodies (which signal a past infection).

Should you tell a partner about herpes?

The only answer to this question is yes. Sharing this information is essential to a healthy relationship, both physically and emotionally. If a person is unaware of the risks to their health that accompany sex with someone, they cannot give that person informed consent. Sharing STI status is the right thing to do.

Sharing the information about your herpes status is essential to a healthy relationship, both physically and emotionally.

Here are some tips for how to have this conversation:

  • Choose the right time and place: Make sure you have privacy and time. During foreplay or intercourse is not the time to share this news.
  • Don’t tell your partner how to respond: They have the right to feel how they feel. Hopefully, they will respond with kindness and honesty.
  • Don’t describe the information as “awful” or “bad”: This is a normal challenge for many relationships. Don’t make it negative before you’ve even started talking.
  • Don’t apologize: Be honest and direct, but you do not need to apologize.
  • Be prepared with information: There’s a good chance your partner may want some details. Have some statistics about how common it is, medications you may be taking, or what the effects will be on your sex life. Don’t downplay it, but be honest with your knowledge.
  • Give your partner time: If your partner needs space to think, give it to them. Living with herpes or dating someone with herpes is possible to do safely. But this is still a big change for their lives and they are free to make their choices.

How to have safer sex with herpes

Communicate and educate yourself

As with any healthy relationship, good communication is always key. If you are feeling sick, unwell, or experiencing symptoms of an outbreak or of an impending outbreak, let your partner know. Being honest with sexual partners is an important part of living with herpes.

Education is also important, for both of you. Can you get herpes from kissing? Maybe. Can you get herpes from a toilet seat? It’s nearly impossible. Can you get a herpes vaccine to protect yourself? Unfortunately, not yet. These may feel like silly questions, but the more you communicate and educate yourselves, the easier it will be to handle this aspect of your relationship.

Use condoms

Most healthcare professionals will recommend avoiding sex completely if you’re having an outbreak. This is when the risk of transmission to your partner is the highest.

It’s also extremely important to use condoms. They should always be used for any sexual activity between outbreaks. Know that because they can’t fully cover every area of potential infection, they are only partially effective. But they do protect or cover the mucous membranes that are the most likely sites of transmission. They also prevent the transmission of other STIs. Female same-sex couples can use condoms on sex toys and latex dental dams to provide protection.

Preventing transmission of the infection during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, is extremely important for the safety of the baby.

If you or your partner is pregnant, talk with your healthcare provider about best practices. Preventing transmission of the infection during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, is extremely important for the safety of the baby.

Try antiviral medications

There are medications that can reduce the severity of symptoms or frequency of outbreaks. Antivirals like acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir are the most common and are thought to be the most effective. Some believe that these medications may also minimize the chance of transmission. 

A final note on living with herpes

Living with herpes or dating someone with herpes is not impossible or uncommon. It will require some thought, care, and effort, as you and your partner must stay informed, practice safe sex practices, and continually be honest and open with each other. But today, there are millions of people across the world that have both a herpes infection and a fulfilling relationship. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK8157/

http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/herpes/faqs-about-herpes/

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