Understanding What Herpes Is (and How to End the Stigma)

Understanding What Herpes Is (and How to End the Stigma)

In life, people will label others. Depending on your job, zip code, nationality, sexuality or even how aesthetically beautiful you are, society will slap a label right on your forehead. It’s rather unfortunate, but it’s the truth. However, one brand that stays with a person for life is a being that person with a sexually transmitted disease. But the worst label of them all? Being the “dirty skank” with herpes.

As it turns out, herpes is an epidemic—one in five American adults has it, but only a third of these people actually knows they have it. How could you not know you have herpes, you ask? That’s thanks to “asymptomatic shedding” which is when someone with herpes, unbeknownst to them because of no noticeable blisters, sheds the virus from their genitalia, passing it to a partner. And there is a lot of sharing going on—in the US alone, 500,000 people are diagnosed with herpes each year.

However, we know there are two types of the herpes simplex virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. The former is the kind that appears around the mouth, which many have experienced (cold sores). These little buggers can also appear on the genitals, thanks to oral sex. HSV-2 only appears on the genitals, and is often more recurrent and severe. But it’s true that both types cause genital warts and the same symptoms, it’s just that one can be on the mouth as well as the genitalia. Also, let it be known that HSV-2 is more common in women than men, due to the higher rate of male-to-female transmission (ugh, thanks guys).


According to herpes.com, the first outbreak is the most severe, causing flu-like symptoms as well as painful blisters within two weeks after the virus is transmitted. When these blisters break, they make these marks called lesions, which crust over and can take up to two weeks to go away. After this first painful outbreak, others, if any, are less severe and often begin with itching and tingling in the genital area and or down the leg. Note that the virus can be spread while the blisters are visible as well as the itchy/tingly period (known as the prodromal stage).

The cure? Nonexistent. Though one would think that with so many people infected with the disease, there would be one on the horizon, and soon there very well could be. But for now, there are medications, such as Valtrex, that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. Also, Tylenol or other amphetamines could help bring relief from the pain. Condoms should also be worn at all times to avoid transmission.

Perhaps perhaps the worst part of herpes is the stigma that comes along with it. Often, people spiral into feelings of shame and depression because of this stigma. They think they can never have sex again or will be judged for contracting this STD. However, one brave woman took matters into her own hands upon being diagnosed with herpes.

Ella Dawson, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, has a passion for sexual health and shedding light on subjects like these, which are often kept in the dark. Dawson shares her story in a remarkable article for Women’s Health. She tested positive for herpes shortly before her 21st birthday and felt the doom and gloom, like many who are diagnosed. “Rebuilding my sense of self was harder than getting over the symptoms of my first outbreak.”

However, after six months of coming to terms with her diagnosis, Dawson started doing the unthinkable—she started “dropping the ‘herpes bomb’” in conversations.

“My logic was that every time I told someone, ‘I have herpes,’ the words would get easier to say. I started looking for opportunities to share this fact about myself, seizing the chances presented by time spent waiting in line to pee at frat parties and by lively class discussions about health care.”

She reported that people’s reactions were not necessarily negative; rather they were curious and taken aback by her bold confidence. My personal favorite anecdote of Dawson’s is when she met a guy at a party who was making jokes about herpes and she responded by telling the kid that she actually had the disease. She could’ve simply laughed it off, but it stung, and she wanted to let him know it.

“Herpes is a safe punch line in an era of comedy where making fun of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and class is increasingly considered politically incorrect,” says Dawson. “Joking about HIV and AIDS is distasteful and insensitive. But who cares about herpes?”

After reading this, I thought about the many times I’ve heard people make herpes jokes and the times I’ve offered an awkwardly uncomfortable laugh because I knew it wasn’t really something to joke about, but felt that I had to provide some reaction. That’s the last time I’ll ever do that.

Hearing about Dawson’s story and how she chose take her diagnosis in stride instead of hiding under a blanket of shame was truly inspiring. Though not everyone diagnosed with herpes wants to go public with their diagnosis, it’s important to know that you shouldn’t feel ashamed or ostracized. In addition, there are many ways to have a fulfilling sex life with herpes.

Sure, herpes is something that no one plans on when looking at the big picture of his or her life. It pops up like an unwelcome stranger that’s there to stay. I came across this inspiring Wayne Dyre quote from someone’s comment on a herpes support blog that I think resonates not only with people suffering from this STD, but with any mental obstacle: “Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.”

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.