Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that herpes affects nearly 4 billion people globally. That’s almost half the world’s population, and yet, the virus is still stigmatized, so much so that people who have the virus often feel isolated as a result. This stigma can be traced back to a number of misconceptions about the virus, including how it spreads, the symptoms, and more. 

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at this stigma. We’ll debunk some of the many misconceptions associated with herpes, talk about how we can fight it going forward and we’ll list some resources that provide support and understanding, so those with herpes don’t have to feel alone. 

What is Herpes? 

In short, herpes or Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is a contagious virus that affects a large number of the population. To understand what HSV is, we should clarify that there are two types of HSV. The most common type is HSV-1, which causes oral herpes (cold sores). The WHO reports 3.7 billion people have this type of HSV. HSV-1 is spread through direct contact with the virus via kissing or another form of mouth-to-mouth contact.

The second type is HSV-2, which primarily causes genital herpes and is currently believed to afflict around 491 million people globally. HSV-2 is mostly sexually transmitted. 

Once a person is infected with herpes, the virus remains in the body for life and can cause periodic outbreaks. Symptoms of herpes include painful blisters or sores, itching or tingling, and flu-like symptoms. While there is no cure, herpes medication is readily available, well-studied, and can help manage outbreaks and reduce the risk of transmission.

Associated Symptoms

The symptoms of HSV-1 don’t often show themselves. It is a largely asymptomatic virus. However, patients who experience a flare-up will notice itchiness, burning, and open sores on or around the mouth. 

For those living with HSV-2 can be both mild and asymptomatic, but recurrent flare-ups may be more common than they are with oral herpes. Symptoms for HSV-2 include open sores and blisters in and around the genital area, as well as fever and general discomfort. 

Treatment Options

Currently, there is no cure for herpes, but treatments do exist that can help HSV patients keep flare-ups at bay. These treatments include:

  • Antiviral medications
  • Creams and ointments
  • Pain relieving medication
  • Lifestyle changes including a healthy diet, reducing stress, and avoiding known triggers. 

Common Herpes Misconceptions 

The misconceptions that surround herpes are many and lead to the stigma and isolation experienced by HSV patients all over the world. Below are some of the most common misconceptions about herpes. 

Misconception 1: Herpes is curable. 

Truth: While there are many people around the internet who claim to have or know of a cure or natural remedy for herpes, as of today, there is no cure. Only therapies and medications can help reduce the number of flare-ups you experience.

Misconception 2: All herpes patients have symptoms.

Truth: For the most part, especially with oral herpes, this virus is asymptomatic. 


Misconception 3: Herpes is only sexually transmitted.

Truth: HSV is transmitted through contact with the virus, and that can happen in many different ways. HSV-1 is often passed on through kissing or sharing lip products, but it can also be transmitted via oral sex. HSV-2 is almost entirely transmitted through sexual intercourse, but on rare occasions, it has been passed on orally.

Misconception 4: Herpes is a minor skin infection. 

Truth: Herpes is a virus that causes open sores and blisters on the skin, but it has also been known to cause meningitis and encephalitis. 

Misconception 5: Only promiscuous people get herpes. 

Truth: This is simply not factual. Anyone can get herpes regardless of their sexual activity.


Misconception 6: Herpes is easily noticeable. 

Truth: Herpes is often asymptomatic, and people can go a long time before they are aware of the fact that they’re infected. 

It’s crucial to be aware of these misconceptions and make a conscious effort to learn the facts surrounding the virus. The more you know about it, the less likely you are to contract it or spread it to someone else.


The Stigma

There is no denying the stigma that comes with herpes. This stigma can take many different forms and cause shame in many different ways. These include: 

Sexual — Many people infected with HSV-2 have been driven to feel shame and believe that it was their promiscuity that led to the infection, even if they’ve only ever had one sexual partner. They may also feel anxiety when it comes to telling new partners and face a debilitating fear of rejection once they inform their partner of their diagnosis. 

Appearance — Open sores and blisters around your mouth can be embarrassing and isolating.

Healthcare — Patients may face poor treatment from healthcare providers who may be judgmental or dismissive. 

Employment — Herpes patients may be reluctant to tell their employers about their diagnosis for fear of facing discrimination. 

Interpersonal — Those who have a positive HSV diagnosis may keep their condition from friends and family for fear of harsh judgment. 

These negative attitudes and behaviors towards those with herpes can have serious consequences, including decreased self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and difficulty forming relationships and finding employment.

It is critical to address the stigma associated with herpes and promote accurate information and understanding about the virus. This can be achieved through education and open, honest conversations about herpes and its effects.

Fighting the Herpes Stigma

We’ve learned that the stigma associated with herpes can have devastating effects on those who have been infected with the virus. In fact, this stigma and the isolation it can cause are often worse than the virus itself. Depression, anxiety, and withdrawal can all develop over time as a result of this stigma, and it can lead to unemployment, relationship failures, and more. 

Much of the stigma associated with HSV can be traced back to misinformation and misconceptions about the nature of HSV. That means that the best way to tackle the stigma is through education.  It is in this spirit that organizations and non-profits around the world have popped up. Some take aim at health education in grade school, while others work hard at disseminating fact-based information to the general public so that we can have a more informed and less judgmental society when it comes to herpes. 

How You Can Get Involved

There are many ways that you can get involved to help end the stigma attached to HSV and the best place to start is by volunteering at or donating to one of these charities whose aim is to provide fact-based sex education and information about STDs as well as treatment, medical advice and more: 

Educating yourself and others about HSV, misconceptions and how it is transmitted, as well as supporting initiatives that aim to do the same are also important things that you can do at home that can help to end the stigma. 

Finding Support

The good news is that there is plenty of support for people living with herpes. There is comfort in knowing that you are not alone and the resources below were created to help others navigate living with HSV. 

National Herpes Hotline: This hotline, operated by the American Sexual Health Association, provides confidential information and support to people with herpes. They can be reached at 919-361-8488.

The American Sexual Health Resource Center – The ASHR is focused on the belief that every American has the right to information and services so that they can live a sexually healthy lifestyle. 

Herpes Support Groups – Find a herpes support group near you using this listing provided by the American Sexual Health Resource Center. 

Concluding Thoughts

The stigma attached to herpes is a pervasive issue that has real-life consequences for those who live with the virus. Even though herpes is a common and manageable condition, people who have been diagnosed with it often face shame, discrimination, and isolation, which can lead to more serious issues like depression, anxiety, unemployment, and deteriorating relationships. 

The stigma, of course, is the result of a widespread lack of education and understanding about the virus, as well as harmful myths and misconceptions that persist to this day. We must, as a society, work to break down the stigma surrounding herpes and promote a more compassionate and informed culture. By doing so, we can create a future where everyone affected by herpes can live with dignity, respect, and equality.


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