Herpes is one of the most common, most misunderstood, and most stigmatized STD’s. Whether acquired in childhood, as a teenager, or as an adult, learning that you have the virus is an eye opening experience. It is an experience that will come with many questions and change the way you view yourself, your sexuality, and your relationships. As you learn more about HSV1 and HSV2, you will begin to understand how common they are, and you will discover that you are far from alone on a journey that millions of other people have already experienced. As you move forward, you will see that it is not just possible to live life, it’s possible to love life to its fullest.
Many people acquire HSV1 orally when they are children. This is partly because children’s immune systems are not fully developed which makes them more susceptible to acquiring the virus. Sharing glasses with older family members, using the same eating utensils, and even a kiss from an overly affectionate great aunt can transmit the virus. It’s so common that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 54% of adults between 14-49 in the United States carry the virus. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 66% of adults in the same age range carry the virus. A significant number of individuals who acquire HSV1 as children and have limited knowledge of what it is, why they have it, and how they can prevent transmitting it to others. This includes taking proactive steps including not sharing glasses, not using the same eating utensils, not kissing, etc. when the individual has a “cold sore” on or within their mouth.
As children grow into young adults and become sexually active following puberty, the possibility of acquiring or transmitting HSV2 and HSV1 increases significantly. While many teenagers learn about HSV2 genital herpes in health education classes, few teenagers realize that oral sex can also transmit HSV1 to the genitals. When the first “outbreak” occurs, it can cause considerable pain and emotional distress. You may feel as if it will never end. The reality is that the first outbreak is always the worst and as your body adjusts and your immune system develops, outbreaks will become less and less frequent, and less and less severe. In fact, it is not uncommon for individuals with strong immune systems to go years, and even decades without having even a single outbreak. However, it’s important to know that just because you don’t have an outbreak with visible symptoms, that doesn’t mean you can’t transmit the virus to others and you still need to take active steps to discuss genital herpes and sexual health status with sexual partners.
This is a considerable period of change in your life. Your body is changing. Your relationships are changing. Your view of the world is changing. It is also during this period where you will be confronted with the stigma that surrounds HSV1 and HSV2. You may hear jokes about the virus and rumors about who has the virus. You will also hear many myths about the virus, a herpes cure, methods to protect yourself and partners from acquiring STD’s, and various, sometimes useless, methods of herpes treatment. If you are a teenager who has acquired HSV1 or HSV2, it is crucial to become the master of as much accurate information as you can about herpes. It is also important for you to take active steps to learn how to protect yourself and your sexual partners from herpes and other STD’s.
Teenagers should be open and honest about their sexuality and their sexual health with anyone they wish to be sexually active with. This is not easy, and many teenagers feel ashamed to talk about it and struggle to initiate the conversation. This fear of discussing sexual health and STD’s is what allows stigma to persist, leads to teen pregnancy, and can make it possible to acquire STD’s that can cause infertility, cancer, and even death. Thus, while having this conversation with a sexual partner may be uncomfortable, the alternatives of not discussing it can have very serious consequences because living with genital herpes does make it easier to acquire other STD’s including HIV.
As a teenager (or adult) living with genital herpes, cultivating a strong sense of self is essential. This will provide you a considerable defense against the stigma that can come with a herpes diagnosis. It is during this period that you will learn that herpes is little more than an annoying skin condition that doesn’t define you. It doesn’t define who you are. It doesn’t define what you can, or can’t do. It doesn’t make you less attractive or less capable of having a happy, healthy relationship than anyone else. As you become more comfortable with who you are and the dreams you want to pursue, herpes will fade into the background of your life.
As you grow into adulthood, your sexual opportunities will increase significantly. Your desire to experiment and explore will lead to new possibilities and new risks. While you may fear rejection while discussing your genital herpes diagnosis with partners, it is the responsible thing to do as you explore all the possibilities that come into your life. It is not easy, but it is worth it because open discussion about STD’s including HSV2 genital herpes can form strong and lasting bonds between partners. As an adult, you will also want to stay up to date on research being conducted into herpes treatment and the long sought after herpes cure that scientists are pursuing. While a herpes cure remains a future possibility, there are numerous herpes treatment options available that can minimize the discomfort and duration of herpes outbreaks. Most importantly, as an adult you will discover that it is more than possible to learn to live with, and love yourself and others following a herpes diagnosis.