My Partner Just Told Me They Have Herpes. I Don’t. Now What?

handsHas your new partner just informed you that he or she has herpes? People have many reactions when hearing this kind of news — and, depending on how informed you are about herpes, your reaction might be tinged with panic or fear. If that’s your instinct, try to keep those feelings in check: Your partner might be feeling very vulnerable, so it’s best not to react with shunning or shaming.

More than 80 percent of people with genital herpes are unaware of their infections.

By being open about his or her STD status, your partner has demonstrated a sense of responsibility toward your sexual health and a respect for your ability to make informed decisions. It’s possible that your partner was not given this same consideration by the person from whom he or she contracted herpes — some people with genital herpes choose not to disclose their status, while most don’t even know they carry the virus in the first place.

Herpes is more widespread than most of us realize. It can be caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 or HSV-2. While HSV-1 is more commonly associated with cold sores and HSV-2 is more commonly associated with genital herpes, either virus can infect the genital area. One estimate states that 1 out of 5 American females and 1 out of 9 American males between 14 to 49 years of age have a genital HSV-2 infection.

Now that you know your partner has herpes, you might have some questions. How easy is it to transmit genital herpes from one partner to another? What can you do to minimize your chances of catching the virus? And, while it is certainly stigmatized in our culture, is herpes something to fear?

Among heterosexual couples, women are more likely to catch HSV-2 from their male partners than men are to catch it from their female partners. Let’s say you have 100 heterosexual couples in which the man has genital herpes and his female partner doesn’t: At the end of one year, an average of 8.6 women will have acquired genital herpes infections. Let’s turn the tables — now the women have genital herpes and their male partners don’t. At the end of the year, only 2.7 of the 100 men will have acquired genital herpes from their partners.

Condom use offers some protection, but studies give varying results on the degree of protection offered — around 50 percent reduction in risk of HSV-2 transmission. Transmission is further decreased when the partner with herpes takes daily herpes-suppressing medications. One study found that acyclovir reduces viral shedding by as much as 94 percent, and valacyclovir has been found to reduce risk by 48 percent. The best way for someone with genital herpes to protect his or her partner is to practice several risk-reducing strategies at once:

  • Use condoms: Although they don’t cover the entire affected area, they still reduce transmission risk.
  • Take herpes medications: Herpes medications, like acyclovir or valacyclovir, inhibit viral DNA synthesis, and can be taken daily to keep the virus in check. (Alternative remedies, like L-lysine, aren’t supported by good evidence.)
  • Practice abstinence during outbreaks: While herpes can be transmitted in the absence of symptoms, symptoms are a sure sign that the virus is active. When blisters, itching, open or swollen sores, or pain is present in the infected area, abstain from sexual activity until a week after all sores have healed.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle: To keep the immune system in tip-top condition, quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and avoid stress.

A herpes outbreak can be very uncomfortable or even painful, featuring ulcers in the genital area that can take weeks to heal. More than 80 percent of people with herpes are unaware of their infections — they either never had symptoms, or their symptoms were so mild that they went unnoticed. (When your partner reveals his or her herpes status to you, keep in mind that you could already be in this asymptomatic group.) Among those who do have symptoms, the frequency and intensity of outbreaks tend to decline over time, often disappearing altogether — although the virus is a permanent resident in their bodies.

Though a herpes outbreak may initially be devastating, many carriers of the virus will tell you it’s not the end of the world. As an STD educator put it:

[Herpes] has not hindered my love life, inhibited my ambition, or limited my friendships (I’ve been married, auditioned for American Idol, gone skydiving 3 times, been an auditor for a Big 4 accounting firm, ran a 25k, started a successful business, worked as a ‘carny’ on a fried veggie wagon, completed 2 degrees, etc.).

An anonymous writer shared these inspiring words:

In a world full of infinite partner choices, herpes had narrowed mine to the understanding, the open minded, the risk takers. I am now confined to partners who think my awesomeness eclipses my cellular flaw — so instead of killing my love life, herpes has weirdly deepened it.

And there are plenty of people who don’t let fear and stigma dictate their love lives. As one commenter on a men’s health blog says:

[T]his fear is pretty ridiculous in my mind. This girl is one of a kind and she’s worth the risk of contracting a disease that causes skin irritation below the belt.

Many people without herpes enter into relationships with partners who carry the herpes simplex virus. They might have decided that their partner is worth the risk, or might not think that herpes is a particularly terrible fate in the first place. It’s up to you to decide if you don’t want to risk acquiring herpes; if you want to take precautions against herpes but can live with it if you catch it; or if you’re totally OK with exposing yourself to the virus.

Whatever decision you make, you need solid information on which to base it. To learn more about herpes, visit these helpful websites by Planned Parenthood, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Scarleteen, and the National Institutes of Health.

8 thoughts on “My Partner Just Told Me They Have Herpes. I Don’t. Now What?

  1. Thanks! this was the answer I was looking for.

    I was once with a sex partner who had chlamydia. He announced it weeks after we had intercourse, I was worried I had contracted it, I had to go for a check up, thankfully I didn´t contract the virus, but while I was going through all the process I felt lonely.

    After a few years I got together with my boyfriend, I´ve been with him for a year, and we´ve had unprotected sex scince day one. Last night I sensed my boyfriend was sad about something, but at first he didn´t want to tell me, after a few hours he told me he had to talk to me about something serious.
    Three years ago he contracted an STD, and he had 3 surgeries to have it removed. He went for regular checkups and told me he had nothing.
    Last night he felt a rash the same place he had it before, he hadn´t told me anything because he thought it had dissappeared completely. I love him, and I want to stay with him, I don´t even know what my questions are.

    I completely support him and I told him that I would do anything to help him.

  2. I envy people that have found awesome people who love them for what they are, and can see the person not the virus. I however, have only encountered shunning and the revelation of my diagnosis always is uncomfortable silence, followed by complete separation and end not only of romantic, but also any friendship.
    My most recent incipient romance has ended less than a week ago, and I was left feeling like a freak or monstor. I might add that I am above average looking woman, own my own home and business, well educated.
    I am really suffering through this again, as I again come to terms with remaining celibate the rest of my life.

    • I’m so sorry you’re going through such a painful series of rejections. If someone can’t “see the person, not the virus,” that says something very sad about them — but that doesn’t help you. You might want to see if there is a herpes support group in your area. This website is from a trustworthy organization, but the list is not very exhaustive. If you don’t live near any of the cities included on that list, you might be able to find a local group by Googling (I found other listings but didn’t want to link to organizations I hadn’t heard of). I wish you all the luck. You deserve someone who will make you happy and who won’t shame you.

  3. I’m sixteen years old and just found out I had contracted genital herpes from the first time I had sex… The guy I had sex with was a one time kind of thing, and my boyfriend who I have been with for a year now and I have not had sex with (I’ve scared of catching something with the other guy from before). I am so terrified about telling him because he could shame me and possibly think that I had cheated on him, which I had not. I feel alone and I don’t know what to do or who to speak to.

    • I recently told my boyfriend I have gentian herpes. And he has not talked to me since yesterday when I told him. Is this normal? Does he need time to think? He is an incredible human being and I feel like he just has a lot to think about. What should I do?

      • Hi Koko. Everyone will react to this information differently, but I am sorry he hasn’t been talking to you. He might need time to think, and (one hopes) to become educated about herpes. You can point him in the direction of reliable websites, such as the CDC and Planned Parenthood, so he has access to the best information.

        There are many couples out there in which one partner has herpes and the other does not, and they are able to use strategies to decrease transmission risk. I wish you the best of luck!

  4. So I started seeing this guy and we got really serious. It has been almost three months, and now all of a sudden he tells me his doctor says he has HSV-1. I got tested in July of last year at a clinic that said I had HSV-1 at a rate of 6.18, but I did not believe it. This was the same clinic that told my mother she had kidney disease and she does not! So I went to the emergency room at a local hospital and got retested: it was negative. This made sense to me because I have literally never had an outbreak in my life and have never shown any symptoms. We sat down and had a talk about all of this. I told him this whole situation, and he assured me he was fine. We even joked about if either of us was going to get something it had been more than 2 weeks and we would have known it by now. As far as I know he has never had an outbreak either. Now all of a sudden he says I gave him HSV-1. What am I supposed to do? I thought he was the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with. We talked about a future, maybe even marriage, maybe kids but we would see because he already had two. He asked me to be his girl friend in January and he was even the one that told me he loved me first, but now he blows me off, doesn’t want to be my best friend anymore, doesn’t want to be in a relationship anymore, nothing. He just wants to be friends. Yet he told me how he still thinks about having sex with me. Since then we have had sex, but we wore a condom this time, and he told me he does not think he has anything but he is going to get retested. None of this just makes any sense to me. He will not answer any of my questions and doesn’t want to talk about this. He says there is nothing to say because I am the only one he has had sex with. He had sex with a girl from my school back in October or November he said he was tested at the end of November and he was fine. We started dealing with each other in December. It is now April. I do not know what to do.

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