We all know what it's like to feel embarrassed by a flaw in our appearance, whether it's an acne breakout, a bad haircut, or a questionable fashion choice.
But the embarrassment and shame felt by many people with herpes are more intense and persistent.
How did herpes, a non-threatening skin condition and close cousin of chickenpox, develop such a pervading stigma?
Is There a Stigma Around Herpes?
Despite its origins from the same family as less stigmatized conditions like chickenpox and shingles, the herpes virus carries a deep stigma. This stigma may even cause more negativity than the physical symptoms of the virus.
Psychologists believe this stigma exists because herpes is a sexually transmitted infection with no cure. It’s hardly a new phenomenon; in the past, those with syphilis, HIV, and other communicable diseases have been stigmatized with intense prejudice.
How Many People Have the Herpes Virus?
When you consider how many people actually have the herpes virus, it’s surprising that the stigma still exists.
The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1),which causes oral cold sores, is by far the most common form of herpes. Experts estimate that about 66% of the world’s population below the age of 50 has HSV-1. That’s about 3.7 billion people!
Genital herpes, also known as HSV-2, is less prevalent than HSV-1, but still affects at least 417 million people. HSV-2 is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI) since it’s mainly spread through close sexual contact.
What Are the Consequences of This Stigma?
The consequences of the herpes stigma pose a serious threat to the mental health of men and women with HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Due to the fear of stigma, those with herpes often feel ongoing anxiety about their diagnosis. They worry about revealing the truth to current and past sexual partners, especially for those with genital herpes.
Unfortunately, herpes stigma can impact sexual intimacy, confidence, and self-esteem. People with herpes and partners of those with herpes alike may not be sure when it’s safe to be intimate. Due to the perpetuation of this herpes stigma, people with HSV-1 and HSV-2 struggle to have honest and open conversations about their condition.
It’s Common, So Why Is Herpes Stigmatized?
It seems irrational to harbor such a strong stigma against a virus that impacts such a large portion of the population. After all, many of the people stigmatizing herpes may have it themselves! And unlike other stigmatized diseases like HIV and AIDs, herpes does not pose a serious health threat. So how did it gain such a bad reputation?
The herpes stigma dates back to the 1970s when newspapers and magazines began labeling genital herpes an “epidemic”. One Time cover even used the headline “Today’s Scarlet Letter: Herpes.” Many articles suggested that only sexually promiscuous people with questionable morals became infected with genital herpes.
As a result, the reputation of herpes took on a life of its own. Many Americans believed that herpes was an untreatable, dangerous disease that caused long-term health problems. We’ve come a long way since the 1970s, but the herpes stigma still exists.
Overall, it’s the sexually transmitted and incurable nature of herpes that leads to the herpes stigma, especially for genital herpes. The cold sore stigma is less pervasive since cold sores only develop on the face and aren’t always associated with sexual transmission. Given that nearly two-thirds of the adult population has oral herpes, cold sores are more normalized than genital herpes.
The genital herpes stigma prevails largely because people don’t understand it. Many assume they can catch genital herpes from a toilet seat or other common surfaces; they aren’t educated about how HSV-2 spreads or affects the body. Others don’t know that genital herpes remains dormant for months or years at a time, allowing those infected with the herpes virus to live a completely normal life.
How to Cope with Being in a Relationship When You Have Herpes
Despite the words of that Time article in the 1980s, herpes does not have to be your scarlet letter! It’s entirely possible to enjoy a safe and satisfying relationship if you have herpes.
Protect Your Partner
Herpes is highly contagious, so it’s important to take strict precautions to prevent the spread of herpes in your relationships.
Fortunately, the risk drops significantly with consistent condom and antiviral medication use. One large study reported that only 1.9% of susceptible partners became infected with clinically symptomatic HSV-2 when given the antiviral valacyclovir as a precautionary treatment.
You can also limit the risk of transmission by abstaining from intimate contact until each herpes outbreak clears and heals completely. From the time that you begin to feel the itching or burning sensation of developing herpes sores, until your outbreak has completely scabbed and healed, consider the virus highly contagious for your partner.
Additionally, sometimes the simplest acts are the most powerful. Implement these hygiene best practices to ensure you don’t accidentally spread the herpes virus to your partner.
- -Keep the infected area clean and dry
- -Avoid touching sores
- -Wash your hands immediately after any possible contact with sores
- -DON’T pick at sores since this will cause infection
- -DON’T make choices that you know can trigger an outbreak
The Stigma Is Unfortunate But Real
The herpes stigma shouldn’t create a lasting roadblock to your happiness and confidence. Finding an effective and preventative oral herpes and genital herpes treatment can make all the difference.
If you are coping with oral or genital herpes and you’re ready to regain control over your herpes infection, try the Luminance RED. This FDA-cleared device uses advanced LED technology to prevent future outbreaks, reduce healing time, and achieve pain relief.
In fact, clinical studies show that patients who receive treatment averaged 82% reduction in pain and 67% reduction in viral load. This safe and powerful treatment can help you overcome the herpes stigma and tackle each new day with confidence.