SATRC: Everyone has herpes

Kenna Cook

At the beginning of this year, I changed careers. I now spend my days roaming the halls of Yolo County high schools, toting a roller box full of condoms, dental dams and stigma-smashing, science-based sex education.

Since I started my full-time job as a Sexual and Reproductive Health Educator, I’ve taught over 2,000 tweens and teens. Let me be the first to tell you that raging hormones and unlimited access to Snapchat nudes has led high school students to become the largest population that spreads sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the U.S. Even though today’s teens can google all the ways to have safe sex, they are under-educated and all hopped on pheromones and bags of Flaming Hot Cheetos–a sexually lethal combination.

One of the most important topics I make a point to spend extra time talking about in each 50-minute sex education class is the most misunderstood and stigmatized STI–herpes! So fasten your seat belts for a crash course in STI education.

Herpes is a fluid-filled blister that shows up on the genitals–the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, or cervix–or the mouth. Herpes is still seen as a dirty little secret, but two-thirds of the population has oral herpes simplex virus, or HSV-1. And 85 percent of the people who have HSV-1 don’t know that they do. So, surprise! Everybody has herpes!

The reason that HSV-1 is so common is because it can be spread through saliva. Some people come into contact with HSV-1 when they’re younger. Maybe they shared a drink with a relative who had an active cold sore and now they have herpes!

If you’ve ever had a cold sore, congratulations! You have HSV-1!

One in eight people have genital herpes, or HSV-2, and some people only ever get one outbreak in their life, while others might have multiple. It just depends on how the virus reacts in their body.

HSV is a neural virus–affecting neural, or nerve, tissue–meaning that you will only ever get an outbreak in that one spot. If you have an active herpes outbreak and exchange fluid with someone else or to another part of your body, you can spread the virus to another neural site.

The life cycle of a herpes blister lasts for about 10 days. Over that time, the blister will form, then it will pop, and then scab over. These three stages are the most contagious to pass herpes on to another person. The likelihood of passing the herpes virus on when you’re not having an active outbreak is less than 50 percent. And if you take medications like Valtrex, it’s less than 2 percent.

For people with weakened auto immune systems, herpes can be more irritating–meaning more frequent and painful outbreaks. This is not something that is going to permanently damage your body, unlike chlamydia and gonorrhea, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility if left untreated.

The majority of medical training for treating herpes is emotional counseling. When somebody finds out they have herpes, they start saying things like, “I’m a dirty person! No one’s ever going to love me! I’m going to die alone.” 

But the truth is, everybody has herpes, and it’s really not that big of a deal. This is information I wish I would have heard when I was 16. It would have saved me years of shame and stigma around one of the most common STIs that is as annoying as a mosquito bite.

I also make a point to emphasize that talking about your sexual health history with your partners is part of getting consent. Telling someone that you have herpes isn’t a reason for them to run for the hills. You’re helping them make informed decisions about their sexual health.

The choice is simple: Wear a condom or disclose your sexual health in a non-judgmental way. There is no reason that you can’t have a healthy, thriving sex life with herpes. Having herpes does not mean that you have been struck down by the sex gods to forever bone alone as a sexual outcast–regardless of what the media and pop culture might have you believe. Your sexual experience needs to include HSV disclosure, regardless of outbreak status and it’s a good way to take the “STI” out of stigma.

Got a burning desire, a burning sensation or an issues that’s about to burn all your bridges? Let Kenna answer your questions for the next “Sex and the River City” column. Email them here!


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Kenna Cook
Kenna Cook is a pansexual, polyamorous, pun-loving professional sex educator and parent born and raised in the River City. Whether you're inspired or mystified by all those nouns, send your sex and love questions to her for deep-dive discussion featured each month on "Sex and the River City."