After more than eight years in the field of STI education and activism, I can talk a lot about the challenges of living with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). And there’s one major thing I’ve learned: The majority of problems related to living with HSV have less to do with the virus itself and more to do with the way people think about it. That’s because the actual infection itself is relatively benign for most people, with many not having any noticeable signs or symptoms at all. (Starting to sound like another virus we’ve all been talking about?)
But despite years of serving the community of people living with HSV, what I wasn’t prepared for was a pandemic that would upend the entire globe and present so many triggering parallels to living with herpes and herpes stigma.
Many of the people I support have mentioned how the onslaught of paranoia, misinformation, pseudo-science, and sensationalism around the novel coronavirus has mirrored their experience with herpes. The ongoing media coverage, public fear, targeting and shaming of certain behaviors, and impact on marginalized communities has continuingly triggered those who are already living with herpes, further regressing any progress they’ve made post-diagnosis and once more isolating them.
So let’s dive into all the herpes myths that parallel the misinformation and scare-tactics surfacing around the coronavirus.
Myths About Who Has Herpes
You can tell if someone has herpes.
- There are many people walking around with the coronavirus who don’t know they have it, because they are asymptomatic. Herpes (HSV1 and HSV2) is also most often asymptomatic, which means the people who have it never have any noticeable signs or symptoms. They can have the virus and not know they have it and still transmit it to someone else.
Certain types of people are more likely to have herpes.
- Even though everyone can contract the coronavirus, we’re seeing a higher percentage of infections in minority populations, like African Americas and LGBTQ folx. There are certain demographics who are disproportionately affected by herpes as well, but it’s not because these people are engaging in riskier activities or in different behaviors. These communities are predisposed to health disparities, such as a higher risk of infection, because of systemic oppression and inequities.
People with herpes are damaged, dirty, irresponsible, and [insert some other subjective judgment here].
- With the mass hysteria of an infection, like the coronavirus, also comes an onslaught of judgemental memes and social media posts condemning people who aren’t “properly socially distancing” without any regard to the individual’s unique circumstances or needs. Rate of community transmission of the coronavirus or STIs, like herpes, is not as simple as improved hygiene, and it’s not subject to society’s moral barometer. Someone can take all the recommended precautions and still contract herpes. All it takes is one point of contact to contract the infection, and having it does not reflect negatively upon their personal cleanliness or morality.
Myths about Herpes Testing
You can tell who gave you herpes.
- The coronavirus takes a long time to show any noticeable signs or symptoms, and some people don’t even realize they’ve had the infection. That makes it nearly impossible to determine who gave you t infection. The herpes virus can also lie dormant in someone’s system and remain that way for weeks, months, or years. The incubation period – how long it takes herpes to show signs or symptoms – is different for everyone, and some never show any signs or symptoms. Sometimes, someone will have herpes and get tested too soon, so they will have a negative test result, because the test was not taken during the window period. With so many factors impacting symptoms and test results, it’s nearly impossible to know who gave it to you.
Herpes tests are included in STI panels.
- Part of what makes the rate of coronavirus infections hard to mitigate right now is a lack of accessible tests. The limited number of available tests and the time it takes to return test results has forced medical personnel to establish a testing triage procedure where they have to prioritize those who are tested above other people who might also have the infection. Herpes testing is not easily accessible or widely available. Currently, routine screening for herpes is not recommended by the CDC unless you have symptoms or you’ve recently engaged in sexual activities with someone who you know has herpes. Testing availability, price, and efficacy vary across providers, and it’s common for herpes to be diagnosed via a visual exam alone. That is why herpes is not included in STI panels, full STI tests, or when you ask to be tested “for everything.” Most people who have it have not been tested for it and don’t know they have it.
Myths about Herpes Transmission
I can never have sex again.
- The coronavirus is transmitted when in close proximity to someone else (less than 6 feet apart), and although it has not been found in genital fluids, it has been detected in saliva, mucus, and feces, which means if your are close enough to engage in sexual activities with a partner(s), risk of transmission during sexual activities is relatively high. So, that has left a lot of people wondering whether they should abstain from sex entirely, and that’s not a realistic or practical solution for most sexually active adults. Contracting the coronavirus or herpes does not mean you can never enjoy partnered sexual activities again. With communication and a few precautions, the sex life of someone with herpes can be just as healthy as someone who doesn’t have it.
You can contract herpes from a toilet seat.
- From people spraying down their Amazon deliveries to leaving their groceries outside in bags for a couple of days, there’s been a lot fear around the coronavirus’ ability to live on surfaces. There’s a similar concern about contracting herpes from surfaces and inanimate objects or blaming new infections on public toilet seats. Unlike the coronavirus that can live on surfaces (although, not the primary mode of transmission), herpes is a very unstable virus and begins to die as soon as it leaves the human body, so you cannot contract it from surfaces like toilet seats.
Condoms prevent herpes.
- The shortage of PPE across the globe throughout the coronavirus pandemic reflects the public’s tendency to build a false sense of security around individual risk reduction methods without considering the myriad of factors that promote community spread. Barriers can help reduce the risk of a herpes infection, but they are not a 100% protection against contracting the virus. Herpes is spread via skin to skin transmission, so barriers, like condoms, can reduce risk of infection, but they do not eliminate risk entirely.
I can’t have a normal childbirth.
- With practitioners and medical facilities inundated with coronavirus patients, certain high-risk groups, like expectant mothers, are especially concerned about the risk of infection. People who are pregnant or in labor might need to take some additional precautions to reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to their newborn, but that does not mean their baby will contract the infection indefinitely. In fact, many mothers have a natural childbirth without transmitting herpes to their child. With some additional considerations and the guidance of your healthcare provider, you can determine the steps necessary to ensure you make the safest decisions for you and your baby.
Myths about Herpes Symptoms
My genitals will be covered in sores and blisters.
- For the majority of people, coronavirus is a mild infection, and many never know they contracted it. The folks who experience more severe symptoms are, in most cases, people who have underlying medical conditions or who are immunocompromised. Many people with herpes never experience a herpes outbreak (ranging from a tiny sore or skin irritation to a small cluster of blisters), but for those who do, over time, the outbreaks tend to reduce in frequency, severity, and duration. In rare instances, when a person has other underlying health conditions or is immunocompromised, a herpes infection can cause health complications, but that is not common.
A couple of notable myths about herpes without direct coronavirus parallels:
Cold sores aren’t herpes/ There’s a good herpes and a bad herpes.
- Cold sores are herpes. Cold sores are often caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1), but they can also be caused by HSV2. Both types of herpes can be located orally or genitally, so attaching a moral component (good herpes vs bad herpes) to the location of a herpes infection is rooted in sexual shame.
No one will want me./I will have to settle for whoever is willing to accept my status.
- It’s ok to be worried about rejection, but you might be surprised to learn that the reality of living with herpes does not mean constant rejection. So many people have herpes, and so many people are willing to consider sexual activities with someone who has herpes. Herpes is something you have, not something you are, and it does not mean you have to settle for anything less than a healthy and rewarding relationship.
In a society that is struggling to navigate a lack of physical and intimate connection, the upside here is that this unique time allows an opportunity to reflect on the parallels that would not typically be considered. A society that favors othering those with herpes would not normally be inclined to hold space for the experiences of people they believe to be different from themselves. Having a shared experience such as that which the coronavirus provides opens the door to awareness, education, understanding, and acceptance.