Let's talk about herpes: not forgetting shingles and cold sores!

Herpes myths and facts

Why is it stigmatised?

There is no one reason why herpes is stigmatised, but this question can be explained by basic social psychology and emotional thinking. Myth is often created when the facts are unclear, and stories contain misconstrued elements of truth indistinguishable from dramatic storytelling. This is most certainly the case for herpes.

The rash is painful and can be present in sexual areas. For many, sex is an emotional situation so any insecurities they have are magnified. If someone is worrying about a partner seeing a rash, or catching one, this will cause discomfort.

Emotional thinking is based on gut reaction, not logic, and any 'difference' to expectation is met with strong feelings of fear, disgust or apathy, neither of which is warranted. We all know a tiny English spider is no threat, but jump when we see one regardless. Catching herpes is low-risk if you're using protection, and even if you do catch it, herpes may never cause a serious problem. You will not spend your life in a state of permanent pain or alone.

A common myth in our society suggests that those who are sexually promiscuous are more likely to get herpes and cannot be trusted. Although increased risk is technically true (due to multiplied chance of infection with multiple exposures) the almost universal prevalence of the condition means there is little difference between the risk of having had one sexual encounter, or ten. You can catch it using a condom with your first partner, without them knowing they have it. Infection does not mean indiscretion; it is just chance.

References to 'bad blood', 'fever blisters' and other names confuse a simple condition with something much scarier. The comedic or insulting aspect of herpes has been championed in movies, often as a way of demeaning the personality of a character or their morals. This is clearly hyperbole and wrong, but more entertaining to audiences than the truth.

I would argue that the moral character of the screenwriter is at fault. Easy point scoring afforded by perpetuating the myth leaves real life patients in strife. The association with poor character and having a common disease is frankly ludicrous. A fear of herpes is simply a fear of the different, and different does not mean wrong. Our fear of herpes is an oversimplification made by an ancient brain. You wouldn't ostracise someone for having a cold.

The truth of the matter

Simply put, herpes is so common that almost all of us have it. Symptoms can be so subtle that you may never notice a rash, and you can catch it from a granny's kiss or first boyfriend. It is only dangerous in very rare cases, which is true of most diseases. No matter how you catch it, it demands no more judgement as an indication of a person's character more than whether they have a cold or which shoes they wear. The love of your life is not ruined by a rash.

A disease so common should not be feared, and as a society we would benefit by accepting that. I ask you to think what you would feel if someone judged you for having something so common. If we all did that, herpes will be as socially feared as a stubbed toe. We would do well to question myths more often, as often the truth is a little less dramatic.


1) Simon, C et al (2016) 'Oxford Handbook of General Practice' 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford

2) http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm (first accessed 11/7/16)

3) http://www.fpa.org.uk/sexually-transmitted-infections-stis-help/genital-herpes (first accessed 11/7/16)

4) http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Genital-herpes (first accessed 11/7/16)

5) http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/the-overblown-stigma-of-genital-herpes/374757/ (first accessed 11/7/16)

6) http://www.herpes.org/whitepaper-the-psychological-effects-of-herpes/ (first accessed 11/7/16)

7) http://herpes.org.uk/ (first accessed 15/7/16)

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