What do I have?
Herpes, or herpes simplex to be more precise, is a virus. Actually it is two very similar viruses, but for the most part, they behave alike. The two most common areas of the body where herpes simplex thrives are on and around the lips (oral herpes) and on and around the genitals (genital herpes).
Herpes is a very common virus. Studies suggest that 20% to 25% of the adult population has genital herpes, and up to 90% of people have oral herpes. The symptoms can vary widely from one person to another, as can the frequency and severity of outbreaks. At least two-thirds of the people with genital herpes have symptoms that are so mild or so atypical that they do not know they have herpes simplex.
How did I get it?
Whether Type 1 or Type 2, oral or genital, herpes spreads from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. It is most easily transmitted through soft, moist, mucus membrane skin. In the case of genital herpes, the skin-to-skin contact occurs during sexual activity, including not just intercourse but oral sex and other forms of sexual contact as well. Thus a person with oral herpes, who performs oral sex on a partner while the virus is active (more about that shortly) can transmit the virus to the partner's genitals, just as easily as a person with active genital herpes can transmit the virus to the partner's genitals during intercourse. Where and how transmission occurs depends on what part of the partner's body comes into contact with the site of the infection, not on whether the virus is Type 1 or Type 2.
What are the symptoms?
Most people experience their first, or primary, outbreak, two to twenty days after exposure to the virus. For most of you, the primary outbreak is the worst. But some of you may have contracted herpes years ago, but not until now experienced noticeable symptoms.
One of the hallmarks of herpes simplex is latency. Whether the initial exposure causes a noticeable outbreak or not, some of the virus leaves the site of the infection and travels along a nerve to a ganglion, where it enters a latent phase. As long as it remains latent it causes no symptoms and cannot be transmitted to others.
But every once in a while, some of the virus becomes active again and travels back down the nerve to the skin surface, usually at or near the point of the original infection. When this happens, it usually causes a recurrence of symptoms, a new outbreak. But at times, perhaps when the amount of virus is small, it can be active on the skin surface without producing symptoms. Either way, it is when the virus re-activates and returns to the skin surface that you are contagious and must abstain from exposing a partner to the virus.
Researchers are just beginning to discover the biological mechanisms that cause this reactivation. But many of us find that stress can trigger recurrences. Friction against the skin at the infection site is another common trigger.
I got this because someone lied and cheated?
You may have contracted genital herpes from someone who lied to you or cheated on you. But that is not necessarily true. Many people who have herpes truly do not know it, even though they may have had the virus for many years. If you just recently learned that you have herpes, you may be thinking a lot about whether the person who gave it to you knew and wasn't honest with you, or whether that person cheated on you or had it before meeting you. It's natural to have these thoughts, but try to let them go. Focus instead on your own healing, emotionally and psychologically as well as physically.
Nor should you blame yourself. Who gets herpes is a matter of random chance. Everyone who is sexually active takes that chance. In our group, we have seen people who got herpes the very first time they had sex. We have seen people who in their whole lives have had only one sex partner. We have seen people who got it from their spouses. Getting herpes is not a punishment; it's just an unhappy accident.
Can people who have herpes find a good relationship?
Once you get beyond the initial shock of being diagnosed with herpes, your biggest worry will probably be how herpes will affect your chance of finding a good, intimate relationship. You wonder whether anyone will want you now. You fear that anyone you tell will run away. Almost all of us go through that phase.
But when we give it a chance, we find that rejection is rare. When someone truly cares about you, and truly wants to be with you, knowing that you have herpes will not change those feelings. You are still you. Herpes does not take away those qualities which other people love and admire in you. Now it may seem impossible, but in time you will find that special someone.
When you do, you need to tell the person that you have herpes. Tell before having sex, certainly. That is the only rule of when to tell. Some people like to tell right away; others wait until they get to know the person better. You'll find the timing that's comfortable for you. When the time comes, be honest. Keep it simple and encourage questions. You can do it; you can have a good life. Really.