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5 myths about herpes, busted

This virus may be super-common, but there's still a lot most folks don't know about it.

by Grace Shih, MD, MAS

Herpes is common. Really common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in six adults has genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by herpes simplex virus.* (To learn more about the two types of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2, check out the CDC's herpes fact sheet). While it may be super-common, there are still a lot of myths out there about it—here are five I hear a lot.

Myth 1: If I don't have any sores, I don't have herpes.

Herpes can lay dormant (sort of like it’s in hibernation) for years without causing any noticeable symptoms. Because of this, many people don't know they have it and may have trouble figuring out how or when they got it. When symptoms do occur, they often appear as small blisters on or around the genitals. The blisters may look like pimples with clear fluid in them, and they may be painful or have a burning sensation. The best way to find out if you have herpes is to see a health care provider if you have pain, blisters, or a sore.

Myth 2: We didn’t have sex, so there’s no way I have genital herpes.

Herpes is spread by skin-to-skin contact with someone who carries the virus. That means you can get herpes by touching, kissing, and oral, vaginal, or anal sex. People who carry herpes don't always know they have the virus, and they may not have any visible sores on their skin.

That said, your risk of getting the virus is higher if you've had contact with a partner who does have a visible sore. Using condoms can majorly decrease the risk of spreading the virus, but doesn’t eliminate it completely. Unfortunately, no other type of birth control reduces the risk of this STI.

Myth 3: There’s a cure for herpes...right?

First, the bad news: Once you have herpes, it will be with you for the rest of your life. The virus can lay dormant for long stretches of time, then cause “outbreaks” at times of stress or illness.

Now, the good news: There are medications you can take to make an outbreak go away faster. If you only get outbreaks once every few years, you can take the medications just when you have an outbreak. If you get outbreaks more often, you might benefit from taking a medication daily to prevent them. A discussion with your healthcare provider will help you decide which strategy is best for you.

Myth 4: I can't have a baby if I have herpes.

This is something many women worry about when they find out they have herpes. Thankfully, it’s not true. Many women living with herpes give birth to healthy babies. However, if you have herpes it is important for you to let your healthcare provider know so he or she can monitor you for symptoms. If at the time of your labor you have any sores on your cervix, vagina, or the skin around your vagina, or if you're experiencing symptoms like tingling or burning, your provider will recommend a caesarean section to prevent transmission of the virus to your baby. If you don't have any symptoms, you can safely have a vaginal delivery.

Myth 5: Herpes is something to be ashamed of.

This is the most important myth to bust: While living with herpes can (literally) be a pain, it's incredibly common and nothing to be ashamed of. For more information on this virus, check out the CDC's Fact Sheet about it. For a more personal take on living with an STI—along with resources and support—check out The STD Project, a site founded and run by a woman who’s living with herpes.

Editor's note: This article was tweaked ever-so-slightly to refer readers to the CDC's fact sheet for more detail about the two types of herpes viruses.

Grace Shih, MD, MAS is a family practice physician in Seattle, WA. She completed her family medicine residency at Brown University and her family planning fellowship at University of California, San Francisco. When she's not seeing patients, you can find her cooking, hiking, or salsa dancing.

I can't believe this article left out the common misconception that type 1 is oral and type 2 is genital. These are the sites of preference, but either type 1 or type 2 can cause genital herpes outbreaks.

2012-12-12 04:59:34 UTC

Cindy

Thanks for your comment, Cindy. You're right that there is a common misconception about HSV-1 being only oral and HSV-2 being only genital. As you stated, while each strain has preferred sites, it is possible for either strain to occur in either site. For this article I wanted to focus on just a few myths I hear a lot, but we'd love for folks to share other myths here in comments!

2012-12-19 21:28:20 UTC

Grace Shih

Thanks for your comment, Cindy. You're right that there is a common misconception about HSV-1 being only oral and HSV-2 being only genital. As you stated, while each strain has preferred sites, it is possible for either strain to occur in either site. For this article I wanted to focus on just a few myths I hear a lot, but we'd love for folks to share other myths here in comments!

2012-12-19 21:28:20 UTC

Grace Shih

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the mention, guys! Really good info here and delighted to see you're encouraging awareness. Awareness and education will lead to acceptance and ultimately, prevention. Cheers!

2013-01-13 21:51:08 UTC

The STD Project

Thanks so much for the content! For herpes singles, I tried ___ HerpesWoo.com ___, a safe, private and comfortable place for people living with herpes to seek support and dating. Just have a try. ^o^

2013-07-16 06:41:18 UTC

JoJoh

i TO JUST FOUND OUT i HAVE TYPE 2 BUT STILL AM SITTING HERE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHEN I CONTRACTED IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. i HAD SURGERY 2 YRS AGO AND IT NEVER CAM UP IN BLOOD WORK AND NOW ALL OF A SUDDEN I SEEM TO HAVE IT. BY THE GRACE OF GOD I DIDNT SPREAD IT TO MY WIFE BUT NOW IM SCARED TO KISS OR TOUCH HER IN FEAR OF GIVING IT TO HER AND DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO.

2013-09-02 08:32:37 UTC

shawn

i TO JUST FOUND OUT i HAVE TYPE 2 BUT STILL AM SITTING HERE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHEN I CONTRACTED IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. i HAD SURGERY 2 YRS AGO AND IT NEVER CAM UP IN BLOOD WORK AND NOW ALL OF A SUDDEN I SEEM TO HAVE IT. BY THE GRACE OF GOD I DIDNT SPREAD IT TO MY WIFE BUT NOW IM SCARED TO KISS OR TOUCH HER IN FEAR OF GIVING IT TO HER AND DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO.

2013-09-02 08:32:37 UTC

shawn

i TO JUST FOUND OUT i HAVE TYPE 2 BUT STILL AM SITTING HERE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHEN I CONTRACTED IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. i HAD SURGERY 2 YRS AGO AND IT NEVER CAM UP IN BLOOD WORK AND NOW ALL OF A SUDDEN I SEEM TO HAVE IT. BY THE GRACE OF GOD I DIDNT SPREAD IT TO MY WIFE BUT NOW IM SCARED TO KISS OR TOUCH HER IN FEAR OF GIVING IT TO HER AND DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO.

2013-09-02 08:32:37 UTC

shawn

I don't understand when you say it's nothing to be ashamed of. I can't bring myself to tell anyone I know including my grown son that I have this horrible disease. I am ashamed and feel as if I will never be normal or be can be with a man ever again. It's terrible.

2013-09-23 19:55:32 UTC

Tiffany

Shawn I have been with my husband for 8 years and he still doesn't have it.

2013-09-25 12:53:17 UTC

Selene

Shawn I have been with my husband for 8 years and he still doesn't have it.

2013-09-25 12:53:17 UTC

Selene

Shawn I have been with my husband for 8 years and he still doesn't have it.

2013-09-25 12:53:17 UTC

Selene

That's absolutely not true. I have herpes and I've still been with multiple partners. If you are a sincere genuine awesome person, they won't care. I promise. No one honestly gives a f if they like you for you who are. Actually kind of a gift. If you know you're clean and do whatever to take care of it then it's fine. Just think of it like acne. It comes. You medicate it. It's gone in three or four days.

2013-10-20 14:52:34 UTC

Maggie

And, you both were virgins! That's great! However, that does not mean at all that a person would not have herpes 1 or 2! In reading the article more carefully, you will discover myth #2. There are many of small children who have herpes! How is that possible, you may ask? Well, children are often touched by adults who are shedding the virus on their lips or surrounding area on their face. So, in other words skin contact! Skin is the largest organ on the human body. People also share make up and drinks!

2013-10-22 06:49:35 UTC

PX90

I would like to say that I am a 35 yr old female, I was diagonosed with HSV-2 when I was 17 yrs old. I contracted it with either my 1st or 2nd partner. I have had this for 18 years, I have been in several serious relationships over the years, and although it can be stressful and scary to tell the person your are dating, I have found that almost everyone I have told has been okay. They are a little taken back at first, but I have never had anyone "leave me" because of it. If that person really loves you, and respects the person you are, it should not be enough of a reason to leave. I would also like to say.. I was married for 6 years, and my husband never contracted it. I have also been in 2 other long term relationships and I have never given it to any of my partners. It really depends on how often you get outbreaks, and being able to know they are coming on, and being abstinent, or practicing safe sex during the days prior to an oncoming outbreak, during the outbreak and for a few days after all the symptoms have disappeared. There are great antivirals that have little to no side effects and they are very effective at shortening outbreaks, and for me that have basically eliminated them. Just educate yourself, so when the time comes to tell your partner you can also address thier questions and concerns.

2013-10-24 15:21:12 UTC

Janessa

I would like to say that I am a 35 yr old female, I was diagonosed with HSV-2 when I was 17 yrs old. I contracted it with either my 1st or 2nd partner. I have had this for 18 years, I have been in several serious relationships over the years, and although it can be stressful and scary to tell the person your are dating, I have found that almost everyone I have told has been okay. They are a little taken back at first, but I have never had anyone "leave me" because of it. If that person really loves you, and respects the person you are, it should not be enough of a reason to leave. I would also like to say.. I was married for 6 years, and my husband never contracted it. I have also been in 2 other long term relationships and I have never given it to any of my partners. It really depends on how often you get outbreaks, and being able to know they are coming on, and being abstinent, or practicing safe sex during the days prior to an oncoming outbreak, during the outbreak and for a few days after all the symptoms have disappeared. There are great antivirals that have little to no side effects and they are very effective at shortening outbreaks, and for me that have basically eliminated them. Just educate yourself, so when the time comes to tell your partner you can also address thier questions and concerns.

2013-10-24 15:21:12 UTC

Janessa

By telling people i have herpes made me stronger. i tell them they might have it and laugh but it can be TRUE. i am not ashamed i actually want to star a campaign about curing Herpes. it seem like everyone gets it no matter how loyal or unloyal you are to your partner or virginity. somehow everyone gets it. there will be a cure if we all speak about this out loud.

2013-11-08 05:58:32 UTC

we

My partner has type 1 n I was trying to figure out how she got it in I don't we Been together first 2 yrs now but we just found out last week n I was mad n she was to but I was telling her once she have it she will always have it but if I was to catch it I was wondering which one will I get type 1 or 2

2013-11-15 12:03:18 UTC

latasha rice

Thanks for sharing the myths on cold sores. But I do hope they will find a cure. Recently I have read some news about clinical trials on a herpes vaccine. But in the meantime, it is best to use whatever remedy is available. Not just to heal quickly but also to prevent infection to other innocent victims especially infants and kids. I saw an interesting remedy at http://coldsorebuster.info/ and maybe it can help some of you.

2013-12-05 01:59:35 UTC

Wes Brusso

Im confused when yu have herpes ur break out stays there even if ur havin no side effect an if yu take a pill all the blisters go away? How fast can some1 contrast it after sex?

2013-12-13 02:16:26 UTC

chiquita

I would really like to find a cure for it. Im pretty sure there is one!

2014-01-09 20:16:36 UTC

ep_2023

What is the website? ????

2014-01-09 20:19:36 UTC

ep_2023

Hi just wanted to know since, i have type 2 and my boyfriend has type 1 too, are you still able to kiss him in the mouth, lips,cheek, etc?

2014-01-27 02:18:07 UTC

Ne2009

I am about to get into a relationship with a very awesome lady. After about 3 weeks of dating she told me that she has this. I didn't think twice about. I told her I'm with her and if our relationship comes to a marriage/sexual relationship, we will figure it out. 1st thing is i was totally unaware of how common it is. 2nd it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. 3rd I just want to know how to prevent this. I'm 36, she's 36. If we get married we want kids, Can I have unprotected sex and still stay clean? At that point I should just start taking the meds too? So does this mean I am going to have to have condom sex with a wife for most of the time? I know these may sound silly, but very valid questions for me. Nothing can stop me from a relationship with this woman, now what do I do?

2014-02-13 07:18:14 UTC

Logo

I totally agree ive had mines for almost a year now Nd I have came to conclusions that it's mine and I have to deal with it. But I know that one day with the faith of God there will be a cure!

2014-02-13 08:52:44 UTC

Guest

I totally agree ive had mines for almost a year now Nd I have came to conclusions that it's mine and I have to deal with it. But I know that one day with the faith of God there will be a cure!

2014-02-13 08:52:44 UTC

Guest

I just got into a relationship with an amazing young woman who had a very hard time telling me she has herpes. I have some very basic knowledge about the disease. Fortunately, she is very responsible and talked to me about risks, prevention and healthy habits. I'm entering the relationship with no fear, confidence and facts. Research and understanding are key. When you have a heart to heart connection with your partner, ANY hurdles or barriers can be overcome!

2014-02-18 08:02:21 UTC

Quin

I just got into a relationship with an amazing young woman who had a very hard time telling me she has herpes. I have some very basic knowledge about the disease. Fortunately, she is very responsible and talked to me about risks, prevention and healthy habits. I'm entering the relationship with no fear, confidence and facts. Research and understanding are key. When you have a heart to heart connection with your partner, ANY hurdles or barriers can be overcome!

2014-02-18 08:02:21 UTC

Quin

While reading about the shingles vaccine I was linked to this page. I read through some of the testimonies and just wanted to add my two cents but because of the economy it’s only worth 11/2 cents. I have proudly had genital herpes for the last 21 years. I say proudly because I have never let this common virus control me or my relationship with my wife who has not been affected by the virus (20 yrs.) however the virus does affect our sex life and sometimes precautions have to be taken (non-sexual play, snuggling, and condom use). According to the CDC the national percent of people who have Genital herpes is about 16% in the age bracket of 14-49 and that has stayed pretty much stable. Some are concerned that there may be a slight increase in cases in the 50 up bracket do to access to medications that help keep ya going when the going gets tough (Viagra, Cialis). Plus the only thing you need to hook up at the “Villages” is a golf cart. For those of you who are new to this virus I know it is a very scary time for you and I know there are so many questions and concerns about your future. But I will give you some advice. If you have partners tell your partners. You have been given knowledge that will drastically change your life, don’t be the reason someone else’s life changes. I was lucky. I was and still am with a woman who loved me and took the time to find out about this virus and learned that other than being a strain of chicken-pocks it can be dealt with and a loving and full life could be had. If you don’t tell those who you sleep with BEFORE sexual activity starts then you’re a real bastard and its you’re kind that keeps this virus in the system. You may lose a few relationships but just remember this “in sickness and in health”. If you have a relationship that can deal with this then there is nothing you can’t handle. Take ownership of it because it is now part of your DNA. Learn about it and about yourself. You will learn that you can sometimes tell when an outbreak will happen, but remember even though you don’t see any pimples you still could be “shedding” and contagious. The outbreak does not always show itself in the genital areas it tracks along nerves so it may show up other places. Sometimes I have an outbreak on my lower back. Once you feel comfortable about this participate in educating others. Volunteer at the clinic and help those who don’t have it learn what they can do to try and stay uninfected and help those who do have it learn to live with like you have learned. In closing – you are not dirty, sick, perverted, nasty, a whore, a hooker, a prostitute, a deviant, unclean, or any of the other names running through you brain. This is not a punishment. This is a virus no different than any other viruses but must be handled carefully. Many people have it but more don’t so do what you can to keep it that way. I wish you the strength and confidence to deal with this and the power to take ownership and live a wonderful life. Sincerely, Dave And welcome to the family.

2014-02-24 17:08:34 UTC

Dave G

While reading about the shingles vaccine I was linked to this page. I read through some of the testimonies and just wanted to add my two cents but because of the economy it’s only worth 11/2 cents. I have proudly had genital herpes for the last 21 years. I say proudly because I have never let this common virus control me or my relationship with my wife who has not been affected by the virus (20 yrs.) however the virus does affect our sex life and sometimes precautions have to be taken (non-sexual play, snuggling, and condom use). According to the CDC the national percent of people who have Genital herpes is about 16% in the age bracket of 14-49 and that has stayed pretty much stable. Some are concerned that there may be a slight increase in cases in the 50 up bracket do to access to medications that help keep ya going when the going gets tough (Viagra, Cialis). Plus the only thing you need to hook up at the “Villages” is a golf cart. For those of you who are new to this virus I know it is a very scary time for you and I know there are so many questions and concerns about your future. But I will give you some advice. If you have partners tell your partners. You have been given knowledge that will drastically change your life, don’t be the reason someone else’s life changes. I was lucky. I was and still am with a woman who loved me and took the time to find out about this virus and learned that other than being a strain of chicken-pocks it can be dealt with and a loving and full life could be had. If you don’t tell those who you sleep with BEFORE sexual activity starts then you’re a real bastard and its you’re kind that keeps this virus in the system. You may lose a few relationships but just remember this “in sickness and in health”. If you have a relationship that can deal with this then there is nothing you can’t handle. Take ownership of it because it is now part of your DNA. Learn about it and about yourself. You will learn that you can sometimes tell when an outbreak will happen, but remember even though you don’t see any pimples you still could be “shedding” and contagious. The outbreak does not always show itself in the genital areas it tracks along nerves so it may show up other places. Sometimes I have an outbreak on my lower back. Once you feel comfortable about this participate in educating others. Volunteer at the clinic and help those who don’t have it learn what they can do to try and stay uninfected and help those who do have it learn to live with like you have learned. In closing – you are not dirty, sick, perverted, nasty, a whore, a hooker, a prostitute, a deviant, unclean, or any of the other names running through you brain. This is not a punishment. This is a virus no different than any other viruses but must be handled carefully. Many people have it but more don’t so do what you can to keep it that way. I wish you the strength and confidence to deal with this and the power to take ownership and live a wonderful life. Sincerely, Dave And welcome to the family.

2014-02-24 17:08:34 UTC

Dave G

I just found out I've had exposure. Is there any way I could have had it for years and it just now show up in blood work

2014-03-26 15:54:25 UTC

Danyele Cheesman

I just found out I've had exposure. Is there any way I could have had it for years and it just now show up in blood work

2014-03-26 15:54:25 UTC

Danyele Cheesman

I just found out I've had exposure. Is there any way I could have had it for years and it just now show up in blood work

2014-03-26 15:54:25 UTC

Danyele Cheesman

I just found out I've had exposure. Is there any way I could have had it for years and it just now show up in blood work

2014-03-26 15:54:25 UTC

Danyele Cheesman

I just found out I've had exposure. Is there any way I could have had it for years and it just now show up in blood work

2014-03-26 15:54:25 UTC

Danyele Cheesman

I just found out I've had exposure. Is there any way I could have had it for years and it just now show up in blood work

2014-03-26 15:54:25 UTC

Danyele Cheesman

Hi Danyele - Your serology (blood work) changes right after an exposure, and once it's there, it never goes away. Your serology does not change years later, but often it's not tested until then.

2014-03-31 21:13:34 UTC

Colleen Krajewski, MD, MPH

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