It is polite to tell people you have herpes

Q

If you have herpes and its not inflamed whats the moral deal with telling new sex partners?


A

Thanks for the great question.  For readers it’s best I clarify what you mean by ‘not inflamed’ and delve a bit in to what herpes actually is before answering.

Herpes is probably the most overrated of all the STDs.  It’s got a scary reputation, probably due to it’s incurableness… but it really isn’t that bad.  I would trade my migraines for herpes any day.

There are 8 human herpes viruses but genital herpes (and face herpes/coldsores) is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 and type 2.  The virus is super common, and easily transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

However, what is really important is that the virus is only contagious through direct skin contact with the affected part when the virus is ACTIVE AND PRESENT.

With both type 1 and type 2 of the virus there is an incubation period before any symptoms appear, usually between 4-5 days but for some people skin symptoms might not appear for years after catching the virus. 

The symptoms at their most obvious are a flu-like illness followed by blisters or ulcers on the affected area.  After this, the infection stays in the system, just as it does with other infections such as chickenpox, or glandular fever, and this is why the virus is considered incurable.  It doesn’t mean that sufferers have blisters on their genitals for the rest of their lives.  That would be another story.

For some people the initial infection is the end of their herpes story, while others (around half the people diagnosed) may experience recurrences when the virus is reactivated.  But with recurrences the body has already created the specific antibodies required and so any outbreaks are usually milder than the first and heal quicker too.

When the virus is inactive/dormant inside the nerve cells it CANNOT be passed on to a partner. 

Herpes simplex CANNOT get through a condom. 

BUT, skin symptoms can appear on areas that are not covered by condoms, so if you’re using condoms but the virus is active on the skin outside the condom, you can still pass it on to your partner.   There is also a thing called asymptomatic shedding which suggests that the virus may be found on an infected area even when there are no visible symptoms, and if enough virus is present it can be transmitted through direct skin contact. 

Most people who catch herpes catch it from someone who didn’t know they had it.  So you’re already a step ahead of the rest, because you are aware of your viral status and are keeping a check on any recurrent outbreaks.

 

 

So, your moral obligation to tell new sex partners?  Obviously in an ideal world we would all be honest about everything.  Especially when it came to disclosing our sexual health to our sex partners. 

But I would say that in a casual/one-off situation with a new partner where you are sure the virus is not active, AND you are using condoms, it’s not crucial that you share this information.  As long as your being safe and taking all the precautions necessary to avoid infecting your partner.  Then the scenario is much the same as if you didn’t have herpes.  And it’s certainly safer than being someone who has the virus but doesn’t know it.

If you enter in to more of an ongoing relationship of any type I think it’s a very good idea to share the fact.   Especially as you definitely want your partner to feel comfortable enough with you to share if they have an STI/STD.  Also there is a chance that you may have an recurrent outbreak at some point in the duration of the relationship, which will be awkward to deal with if you haven’t already disclosed your history of having the virus. 

A good way to think about it, as is often the case with moral questions, is to imagine what you would like to be informed of yourself, on a case-by-case basis, and choose your actions based on this. 

You should also have regular check ups at your local clinic and most importantly, if you haven’t already, talk with a doctor so you can best identify, monitor and prevent your outbreaks. 



The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only.  I am not a medical professional; always seek actual clinical help if you have concerns about your sexual health.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .