How To Talk About Herpes With Your Partner

Learn more about when and how to talk about herpes with your partner, and how you can prevent herpes from spreading.

Despite the millions of people who have herpes, this condition still carries a significant stigma. However, herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) — according to a 2018 National Center for Health Statistics report, almost 60% of people ages 14-49 have this STI. Dating with herpes can feel daunting, but you are not alone.

Since the herpes simplex virus (HSV) can be spread through kissing or sex, it is important to talk with your partner about all STIs either of you may have. Learn when and how to tell your partner you have genital or oral herpes.

What Is Herpes?

It can help to know how herpes works whether or not you have a partner. Asking a healthcare provider about herpes may be helpful, according to Melody A. Baldwin, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University Medical Center.

There are two types of the virus that cause herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 typically causes oral herpes, which has symptoms including cold sores. Meanwhile, HSV-2 is usually to blame for genital herpes sores. "However, over the past few decades, there has been an increase in HSV-1—which usually causes oral symptoms—causing genital herpes," Dr. Baldwin said.

After being infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2, you will always have herpes because the virus stays in your body. Many people with herpes have repeat episodes of symptoms later in their life, but some have no symptoms. Both types of herpes viruses can be passed on whether you have herpes symptoms or not.

Should You Tell a Partner You Have Herpes?

Disclose your HSV status to anyone you're getting involved with. "I encourage everyone to share their diagnosis with their partners so that everyone can make the healthiest decisions for themselves," Dr. Baldwin said.

You should also inform your partner about your herpes status for legal reasons. "There are so many lawsuits of people suing someone else for giving them herpes," said Terri Warren, ANP, a nurse practitioner at Westover Heights Clinic and spokesperson for the American Sexual Health Association. By not telling your partner you have herpes, they lack the information needed to protect their health.

When Should You Disclose Your HSV Status?

You don't have to bring up herpes the very first time you talk to someone new, but you should at some point before you have sex or exchange body fluids. "You are more likely to have a positive reception to that news if you have built some sort of relationship. If you tell too early and there's no reason for this person to be invested in you, then you may get a negative response very quickly," Warren said.

How Do You Tell Someone You Have Herpes?

The hardest part of telling your partner may be deciding how to broach the subject. The specific words and phrases you use will depend on what kind of relationship you're building. In general, though, don't stress too much about having herpes. Your partner may even divulge that they also have herpes. And if they have the same type of the virus as you, they can't get "reinfected," Dr. Baldwin stated.

You could start the conversation by mentioning cold sores, then move into the subject of herpes. You could also start by saying you want to be honest in the relationship, or that you want to discuss safe sex. "It can be a very difficult conversation to have, but you should be honest and straightforward," Dr. Baldwin recommended.

What Should You Discuss About Herpes?

Talk about when it is safe to have sex. "Some important information to share would be whether or not you have frequent outbreaks, which is the highest risk time for transmission," Dr. Baldwin said. Avoid sexual activity during a symptom outbreak, or if you have pain or tingling in the areas you get lesions since that can be a warning sign of an outbreak.

You should also tell your partner if you are on any antiviral medications. Taken daily, drugs like acyclovir (Zovirax) and valacyclovir (Valtrex), can significantly reduce the risk of herpes transmission—but not 100%. You should use condoms even while taking these drugs, but condoms cannot fully prevent the virus from spreading because the virus can spread on genital areas not covered by a condom.

As long as you're honest and safe, herpes shouldn't kill a budding relationship. "From my point of view, I don't think it's a deal-breaker," Warren said.

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