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Pictured above: From http://ncfy.acf.hhs.gov/news/2013/01/qa-what-can-be-done-teach-healthy-relationship-skills-foster-youth

Has your new partner just informed you that he or she has herpes? People have many reactions when hearing this kind of news — and, depending on how informed you are about herpes, your reaction might be tinged with panic or fear. If that’s your instinct, try to keep those feelings in check: Your partner might be feeling very vulnerable, so it’s best not to react with shunning or shaming.

More than 80 percent of people with genital herpes are unaware of their infections.

By being open about his or her STD status, your partner has demonstrated a sense of responsibility toward your sexual health and a respect for your ability to make informed decisions. It’s possible that your partner was not given this same consideration by the person from whom he or she contracted herpes — some people with genital herpes choose not to disclose their status, while most don’t even know they carry the virus in the first place.

Herpes is more widespread than most of us realize. It can be caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 or HSV-2. While HSV-1 is more commonly associated with cold sores and HSV-2 is more commonly associated with genital herpes, either virus can infect the genital area. One estimate states that 1 out of 5 American females and 1 out of 9 American males between 14 to 49 years of age have a genital HSV-2 infection.

Now that you know your partner has herpes, you might have some questions. How easy is it to transmit genital herpes from one partner to another? What can you do to minimize your chances of catching the virus? And, while it is certainly stigmatized in our culture, is herpes something to fear?

Among heterosexual couples, women are more likely to catch HSV-2 from their male partners than men are to catch it from their female partners. Let’s say you have 100 heterosexual couples in which the man has genital herpes and his female partner doesn’t: At the end of one year, an average of 8.6 women will have acquired genital herpes infections. Let’s turn the tables — now the women have genital herpes and their male partners don’t. At the end of the year, only 2.7 of the 100 men will have acquired genital herpes from their partners.

Condom use offers some protection, but studies give varying results on the degree of protection offered — around 50 percent reduction in risk of HSV-2 transmission. Transmission is further decreased when the partner with herpes takes daily herpes-suppressing medications. One study found that acyclovir reduces viral shedding by as much as 94 percent, and valacyclovir has been found to reduce risk by 48 percent. The best way for someone with genital herpes to protect his or her partner is to practice several risk-reducing strategies at once:

  • Use condoms: Although they don’t cover the entire affected area, they still reduce transmission risk.
  • Take herpes medications: Herpes medications, like acyclovir or valacyclovir, inhibit viral DNA synthesis, and can be taken daily to keep the virus in check. (Alternative remedies, like L-lysine, aren’t supported by good evidence.)
  • Practice abstinence during outbreaks: While herpes can be transmitted in the absence of symptoms, symptoms are a sure sign that the virus is active. When blisters, itching, open or swollen sores, or pain is present in the infected area, abstain from sexual activity until a week after all sores have healed.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle: To keep the immune system in tip-top condition, quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and avoid stress.

A herpes outbreak can be very uncomfortable or even painful, featuring ulcers in the genital area that can take weeks to heal. More than 80 percent of people with herpes are unaware of their infections — they either never had symptoms, or their symptoms were so mild that they went unnoticed. (When your partner reveals his or her herpes status to you, keep in mind that you could already be in this asymptomatic group.) Among those who do have symptoms, the frequency and intensity of outbreaks tend to decline over time, often disappearing altogether — although the virus is a permanent resident in their bodies.

Though a herpes outbreak may initially be devastating, many carriers of the virus will tell you it’s not the end of the world. As an STD educator put it:

[Herpes] has not hindered my love life, inhibited my ambition, or limited my friendships (I’ve been married, auditioned for American Idol, gone skydiving 3 times, been an auditor for a Big 4 accounting firm, ran a 25k, started a successful business, worked as a ‘carny’ on a fried veggie wagon, completed 2 degrees, etc.).

An anonymous writer shared these inspiring words:

In a world full of infinite partner choices, herpes had narrowed mine to the understanding, the open minded, the risk takers. I am now confined to partners who think my awesomeness eclipses my cellular flaw — so instead of killing my love life, herpes has weirdly deepened it.

And there are plenty of people who don’t let fear and stigma dictate their love lives. As one commenter on a men’s health blog says:

[T]his fear is pretty ridiculous in my mind. This girl is one of a kind and she’s worth the risk of contracting a disease that causes skin irritation below the belt.

Many people without herpes enter into relationships with partners who carry the herpes simplex virus. They might have decided that their partner is worth the risk, or might not think that herpes is a particularly terrible fate in the first place. It’s up to you to decide if you don’t want to risk acquiring herpes; if you want to take precautions against herpes but can live with it if you catch it; or if you’re totally OK with exposing yourself to the virus.

Whatever decision you make, you need solid information on which to base it. To learn more about herpes, visit these helpful websites by Planned Parenthood, the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionScarleteen, and the National Institutes of Health.

Tags: safer sex, abstinence, herpes, condom, cold sores, sexually transmitted infections, medication, genital herpes, STI, sexual health, STD Awareness, HSV, HSV-2

About Anna C.

Anna first volunteered for Planned Parenthood as a high school student in the 1990s. Since then, she has received a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in epidemiology from the University of Arizona. As an ode to her fascination with microbes, she writes the monthly STD Awareness series, as well as other pieces focusing on health and medicine.