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You have herpes - now what?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sixteen percent of Americans have genital herpes. Caused by the herpes simplex virus, genital herpes causes blisters to form in the effected area. The blisters eventually open, leaving behind tender sores that take several weeks to heal. But herpes is not just about having a few blisters. It can leave patients feeling scared, ashamed, and scarred for life. People with herpes, however, do have options. Those with the disease can manage the symptoms and lead normal, fulfilling lives.

Telling your partner that you have herpes is difficult but imperative.
© Ocean/Corbis

Getting a Diagnosis

Only your healthcare provider can diagnose you with herpes. You should not feel embarrassed. Doctors are there to help you and to keep you as healthy as possible. Your physician will likely perform a brief physical examination, then take a small swab of the lesion. If needed, he or she will then acquire a small blood sample. If the tests are positive, they will indicate HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1), or HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus type 2). The tests will reveal your outbreak to be new or recurring. The more you know about your own health, the better equipped you will be to improve it.

Treatment Options

There is no cure for herpes. Treatment, however, is simple and twofold. First, your physician will prescribe an antiviral medication to reduce the duration of the outbreak. Second, daily suppression therapy can minimize the effects of the disease and reduce your chances of spreading it to others. Even if you are actively treating your herpes or have no symptoms, you should still take all proper precautions before engaging in sexual activity.

Difficulties of the Disease

Herpes is a tricky condition in a number of ways. First, the symptoms of herpes can be ambiguous. People can easily mistake the condition for the flu, ingrown hairs, or other simple ailments. Some people will have no symptoms at all. Amid all the confusion, it can be easy to accidentally spread herpes to others. If you have herpes and you touch the sores, you could even spread the infection to other parts of your body. Finally, herpes is one of the few STDs that has no cure. Though it is a persistent ailment, antiviral medications can minimize the symptoms. See your healthcare provider right away if you have concerns.

Pregnancy and Prevention

A pregnant woman can pass herpes onto her unborn child. This infection, called neonatal herpes, can be fatal for the baby. Pregnant women should always avoid sexual contact with infected partners. Should an expectant mother contract herpes during pregnancy, a physician can administer antiviral treatments from 36 weeks into the pregnancy until birth. Infected mothers may also need to deliver by Caesarean section to avoid passing herpes onto the child.

Social Stigma

When you have herpes, it can feel like you're walking around with a scarlet letter. You might feel embarrassed or ashamed, and you might wonder if you'll ever experience intimacy again. Ultimately, you are not "dirty" or permanently damaged. You simply have an ailment that you must treat. Once you have herpes, you must tell your sexual partners before engaging in sexual activity, and prepare accordingly. Using a latex condom prior to sexual contact will reduce your risk, but not eliminate it completely. A condom will not cover all areas of your skin, and misuse and breakage can occur. Abstinence is the safest method of prevention.

People with herpes deserve loving relationships just as anyone else does. There are a number of websites, such as PositiveSingles (www.PositiveSingles.com), that cater to mutually infected partners. Such methods can eliminate a difficult discussion and create new relationships. Regardless of what method you choose to find love, you should continue to make healthy, responsible choices.

Resources

Even the most well-informed patient can experience difficulty when dealing with herpes. The uncertainty is intimidating, and it can be a complete shock. There are a number of questions to consider. When should you tell a new love interest? How should you tell him or her? How will life be different? You can't rely on a few brief commercials or internet hearsay for information. The GYT Campaign, the CDC's Division of STD Prevention, the CDC's National Prevention Information Network, the American Sexual Health Association, and other reputable health resources can help guide you as you learn about the illness.

Herpes is not a death sentence. It is a condition you can and should treat successfully while living a full life. You can still make responsible choices while remaining healthy and safe. Your knowledge will guide you as you experience diagnosis, treatment, and even love or childbirth. You have herpes, but herpes does not have you.