Beyond the stigma and shame – a Spotlight on Genital Herpes
How many of us would ever admit we have or have had a sexually transmitted disease? We might discuss that we have been tested and are ‘clean’ with a new partner but we might not discuss that we have had herpes in the past, especially if we are asymptomatic.
But do you know that having herpes is lifelong? You could have it and not know. You may have had one infection and never have a further infection. Herpes can remain dormant in your system until a flare takes you by surprise years later.
Herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex. There are 2 types – Herpes simplex 1 (HSV1) and Herpes simplex 2 (HSV2). HSV1 is more commonly oral herpes (cold sores found around the mouth and on the face) and transmitted through oral-to-oral contact but which can also cause genital herpes. HSV2 is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes genital herpes only, passed on through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Many people feel they are the only one with herpes. The more it’s not talked about then the more it becomes a stigma. But in reality, according to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 3.7 billion people under age 50 (67%) have HSV1 infection globally. And an estimated 491 million people aged 15-49 (13%) worldwide have HSV2 infection. These figures are thought to be considerably higher as herpes is not tested for in standard STI screening unless there are sores on the genitals or anus. You can carry the herpes virus and never have symptoms so many of us could be carrying one or other of the HSV1 or HSV2 viruses and not know it.
Having herpes is not indicative that you/your partner have slept around or not used condoms. Your partner may not have lied if they tell you they tested negative for STI’s due to the lack of routine testing. So, you can be told you are negative for STI’s and still have herpes. Herpes can live on the skin all over the genitals and hips not just the vagina and penis so a condom can not necessarily stop you getting it.
Genital herpes is very easy to pass on from the first tingling or itching of a new outbreak (before any blisters appear) to when sores have fully healed. You may also be able to pass on the virus even if you do not have any symptoms.
That’s important to remember. Why? Because what seems to be a common theme I hear from people who have genital herpes, are feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust at themselves for being ‘dirty’. They have often kept it secret from everyone, even their partners. ‘Jenny’ told me how she had had herpes for almost 30 years and I had been the first person she had ever told. She felt dirty and was concerned people would think she had been promiscuous, when in reality she got herpes from the first person she had had sex with. She avoided sex if she had a flare, which had been a rare occurrence. But the flares were happening more as she was very stressed at the moment. And the more she stressed about the flares, the worse they were.
Symptoms of genital herpes are usually:
- small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, anus, thighs, or bottom – similar to what you see as cold sores around people’s mouths,
- tingling, burning, or itching around your genitals,
- pain when you pee,
- and in women, a change in your vaginal discharge.
Herpes will stay in a nearby nerve forever, causing blisters in that area only but spreading can occur:
- from skin-to-skin contact with the infected area (including vaginal, anal, and oral sex)
- if a cold sore touches your genitals
- by transferring the infection on fingers to genitals (your own and your partners)
- by sharing sex toys
Even when there are no visible sores or blisters!
But you cannot get it from sharing cutlery or crockery as the virus dies quickly when not on the skin.
So, remember, we may all be carrying the virus and we can reduce our chances of catching or passing herpes on by:
- using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex – but bear in mind herpes can still be passed on if the condom does not cover the infected area.
- avoiding vaginal, anal, or oral sex if you or your partner has blisters or sores, or a tingle or itch that means an outbreak is coming
- not sharing sex toys – if you do, wash them, and put a condom on them.
It is also important to remember that it can take months or years for symptoms to appear. And they may appear even if you have not had sex for a long time. Again, why is that important to remember? Well, imagine a scenario where you have been with a partner for a few years and you get a herpes outbreak for the first time? You might assume that they have cheated on you. Or if you have not had sex for a long time, you may wonder why you are having symptoms now. You or your partner may have had the dormant virus in your system from an earlier infection for years and just not known.
Triggers can include:
- During the menstrual cycle
- ultraviolet light – for example, from sunbathing or sunbeds
- friction in your genital area – for example, from sex (lubricants may help) or tight clothing
- drinking alcohol
- a weakened immune system – for example, from having chemotherapy for cancer
It is possible to get pregnant with herpes. Rarely will it hurt the baby (provided there are no active sores at the time of vaginal delivery).
Treatment of Genital Herpes:
- keep the area clean using plain or salt water to prevent blisters becoming infected
- apply an ice pack wrapped in a flannel to soothe pain
- apply a barrier cream or painkilling cream (such as 5% lidocaine) to reduce pain when you pee
- wash your hands before and after applying cream or jelly
- pee while pouring water over your genitals to ease the pain
- Antiviral medicine may help shorten an outbreak by 1 or 2 days if you start taking it as soon as symptoms appear. But outbreaks usually settle by themselves, so you may not need treatment. Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than the first episode of genital herpes. Over time, outbreaks tend to happen less often and be less severe.
- I support many women who have herpes breakouts with homeopathy. Both for their feelings of guilt and shame at having caught herpes and as flares often happen when they are very stressed and run down. By addressing the root cause of their stress, we can alleviate their symptoms and possibly stop the flares reoccurring.
So, let’s start having open conversations about herpes and stop feeling like you are the only one with a dirty secret that you have to be ashamed about. You are really not alone and it is treatable.
Becca is a homeopath and reflexologist specialist in gynaecological health available at www.healing-space.co.uk