Perhaps the best tool we have to fight the social stigma of herpes is information. Ignorance and misinformation create fear and fuel the development of stigmatizing attitudes and behavior. As a knowledgeable reader of The Helper, you can easily separate fact from fiction, myth from reality. But for others in your life who may be less informed, we’ve created this list of the most common misconceptions about herpes to arm you with the language and facts to use to educate others. Consider it a handy clip-and save piece to pass on to a friend!
False: It’s shameful to have genital herpes.
True: Anyone who has ever had sex can get genital herpes. It’s not about being clean, dirty, bad or good—it’s about being sexually active. A person can get genital herpes if they receive oral sex, if they have vaginal sex, if they have anal sex, or if their genitals touch another person’s genitals. Nearly 1 out of 4 people in the U. S. have genital herpes.
False: People know if they have genital herpes.
True: Most people who have herpes do not know it. As many as 90% of people who have genital herpes do not know they have it because they have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Many people have symptoms, but don’t think they are caused by herpes.
False: Many exams and screenings check for herpes.
True: Pap tests, routine physical exams and most STI screenings do not check for herpes. If a person has symptoms of genital herpes, getting a viral culture is best. If there are no symptoms present, a blood test can be done. There are many blood tests, but some are not accurate. A “type-specific IgG blood test” is best.
False: A negative blood test or negative culture means you don’t have herpes.
True: Negative blood tests or cultures can be correct, but they can also be wrong. It’s possible for someone to get a false negative blood test result or a false negative culture result. It’s best to wait at least three months before getting a blood test. For a culture, it’s best to get to the doctor as soon as possible before symptoms start to heal.
False: Herpes is passed through blood.
True: Herpes is not present in the blood. The many people with genital herpes can donate blood for example. Genital herpes is only passed through direct skin-to skin contact to the genital area.
False: Condoms do not help reduce the risk of getting genital herpes.
True: Condoms have been proven to reduce the risk of passing or contracting herpes. Contrary to what some may hear, no penis is too big for a condom, and condoms come in different sizes. If someone happens to be allergic to latex, there are condoms made from other material. Condoms also help reduce the risk of contracting other sexually transmitted infections.
False: People with herpes are always contagious.
True: A person with herpes is not always contagious. The virus can only be passed when it is present on the skin. This can be when symptoms are present such as when there is itching, tingling or visible signs (during an outbreak). This can also be when symptoms are not present (called asymptomatic shedding or asymptomatic reactivation). A person would not know when they are contagious without symptoms.
False: Herpes means someone cheated.
True: If someone has herpes, it does not mean they cheated or that a partner cheated. A man or woman can have genital herpes for many months or years without realizing it. A person could have gotten herpes recently or a long time ago and just not known it. Also, a person can pass the virus to another person without knowing it.
False: People with herpes can’t have children
True: A man or woman with genital herpes can have children. Most pregnant women with herpes have healthy babies. The greatest risk is when a pregnant woman first gets herpes during the last part of pregnancy (the 3rd trimester). Herpes in a baby is rare but very serious. Individuals with herpes who are pregnant or who have partners who are trying to become pregnant should speak with their healthcare provider.
False: Cold sores and fever blisters are not herpes.
True: Cold sores and fever blisters on or around the mouth are caused by the herpes simplex virus—usually HSV-1. This is called oral herpes. Most people get oral herpes as children when they kiss a parent, relative or friend. Someone with oral herpes can pass the virus to another person’s genitals by touching their mouth to the other person’s genitals (oral sex).