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Today is National Herpes Awareness Day, and we want to talk about why this day of awareness exists.

Like many STIs, herpes is a very common but often misunderstood and stigmatized infection. Herpes is a virus, and once it’s been contracted, it can’t be entirely eradicated from someone’s body. However, it’s easily treated and preventative measures can be taken to minimize the possibility of spreading the virus to a sexual partner. 

A herpes infection can be caused by two different types of the herpes simplex virus: type 1 (HSV-1)  and type 2 (HSV-2). Though both types can cause oral or genital infections, oral herpes is usually caused by HSV-1 and genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2. The herpes virus, in either form, is incredibly common. More than 1 in 6 people of reproductive age have genital herpes, but most people don’t know that they’ve been infected. The majority of people living with the herpes virus have no symptoms, or very mild symptoms that may be attributed to other skin conditions.

For people who contract the herpes virus and do experience symptoms, the initial outbreak often occurs within two weeks of exposure. This initial outbreak will likely manifest in several small blisters, but can also include symptoms like fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, or a headache. A doctor can generally diagnose herpes based on the presentation of blisters, but the most accurate way to verify a herpes diagnosis is through a blood test, says the CDC. This test isn’t often administered as part of standard STI-screenings, which usually require a genital swab or urine sample, so people who are asymptomatic may never be tested for the herpes virus unless they come into sexual contact with someone else who has tested positive or experiences symptoms. In fact, because herpes is such a common and often asymptomatic infection, the CDC doesn’t recommend screening unless someone knows they might have been exposed or is experiencing symptoms.

Though many people who have herpes are asymptomatic, it is still possible for anyone that carries the virus to pass it to sexual partners during periods of viral shedding. Transmission of the virus from one person to another happens through skin to skin contact with an infected area, and can occur even during times when no symptoms are present. Anyone who is sexually active should have open conversations with their partner(s) about STIs like herpes, including if and when they’ve been screened and if they’re experiencing any symptoms that could be caused by an STI. To lower the possibility of transmission, sexually active people with herpes can talk to their doctor about suppressive antiviral therapy, consistently use barrier methods of protection like internal/external condoms and dental dams, and plan sexual activity around active outbreaks.

For a virus that’s fairly common and there’s no serious health threat associated with it, herpes has gotten a lot of attention.

There’s a huge amount of stigma associated with STIs in general, but especially with viral STIs like herpes and the human papillomavirus, or HPV. This stigma feels pervasive and long-standing, but it’s a fairly recent development. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists determined the difference between HSV-1 and HSV-2, beginning the classification of “genital herpes” as a subcategory of the virus. In its earliest years in public discourse, many sex-positive experts and advice-givers suggested that it was nothing to worry about whether or not you were already infected. 

Like many stigmatized aspects of sexual and reproductive health, the conversation around herpes turned negative as major publications began to associate it with sexual promiscuity in the 1970s and 1980s. A cultural discomfort with the concept of the herpes virus was quickly spread through popular media which, alongside an under-developed understanding of how to treat patients experiencing outbreaks, led to a negative perception of the virus and those who experienced symptoms. 

But now, the infection caused by the herpes virus is easily treatable, and there are effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus to sexual partners. We have so much more knowledge about the virus, but culturally we haven’t quite caught up. To help end stigma and shift the cultural narrative, we need to have open and honest conversations about STIs. We can’t tolerate judgemental language or inappropriate jokes about people who have herpes, or any other viral infection. 

To read more about the personal perspective of some people who are living and loving with herpes, visit the STI Project’s website.

Learn more about Planned Parenthood’s STI screening, testing, and treatment options here.

Tags: genital herpes, herpes, STD, STI