You’ve probably heard about herpes before from sex-ed classes, tasteless jokes on TV, or your annual check-up – but do you really understand what it’s like to live with this STI? Well, if you’re one of around 3 million+ Australians - yes, you do.
Genital herpes is very common – as many as 1 in 8 sexually active Australians live with the infection.* Anyone who has had any type of sex (oral, manual, vaginal, or anal) can contract herpes, and many people don’t even know that they carry it because they don’t see symptoms. Unfortunately, it’s heavily stigmatised in our society, but it shouldn’t be. People with herpes often have sex lives just as fulfilling as those who live without it (more on that later).
So, how does herpes occur?
The infection is caused by two different (but similar) viruses: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Most cases of genital herpes are linked to HSV-2, while most cases of oral herpes or cold sores are linked to HSV-1. Both of these are spread through skin-to-skin contact (typically around the genitals, anus, and inner thighs) during sexual encounters.
People who do experience symptoms of HSV-2 often initially feel like they have a cold or flu, getting symptoms like fever, headache, swollen glands, chills, and fatigue. This is typically accompanied by sores or blisters in or around the genitals which can be painful or uncomfortable. Most people continue to experience occasional outbreaks of the sores or blisters after the first episode (minus the cold symptoms). No, herpes is not curable, but medication is available to manage symptoms and most people find that their outbreaks become less frequent and more mild over time.
If you receive a diagnosis of herpes, it might feel like the end of your sex life, but that’s far from the truth. Honesty and transparency with sexual partners and preventing the spread of infection is important, but outside of that, it can be more or less business as usual in the bedroom. In terms of protection, you can use barriers (like dental dams and condoms) and take antiviral medications. You should also avoid skin-to-skin contact during an outbreak, but that doesn’t mean you can’t engage in other types of fun like mutual masturbation or sexting.
It’s also up to you and any partners you have what your level of comfort is. Some people (especially those in monogamous relationships) choose to take fewer precautions after a while and accept the risk. It’s also up to you when you tell a partner about your STI status. While you should definitely mention it before you engage in skin-to-skin contact with the infected area, you don’t have to open with it on the first date (unless you want to – STIs are nothing to be ashamed of)!
Uncomfortable - yes. Unpleasant - sure. But herpes is not a death sentence for you or your sex life. With proper communication, information and protection you can enjoy a complete, varied and wonderful sex life.