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Common Herpes Myths vs. Facts

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 5/5/2020

Herpes is one of the most common person-to-person viruses in the world, and as such, there are a lot of herpes myths out there on the internet. 

Some of these are grounded in facts but inaccurate, while others seem to persist despite being completely untrue. From never being able to have sex again after infection to thinking herpes is a rare, unusual disease, there’s no shortage of myths, rumors and half-truths about herpes.

Below, we’ve listed some of the most common myths about herpes and provided real scientific data to set the record straight.

Myth 1: If you have herpes, you’ll definitely have symptoms

This is one of the most common herpes myths—that if you’re infected, you will definitely have symptoms of the virus.

The reality is that herpes doesn’t always produce symptoms. In fact, only about one out of five people that have herpes will show visible symptoms, such as oral cold sores or herpes lesions on their genitals.

Most people that herpes aren’t aware that they’re infected, largely because the virus remains dormant and doesn’t produce any symptoms for most people.

Of course, that's not to say there aren't visible herpes symptoms you can look for. Our HSV-1 vs. HSV-2 guide goes through all the different symptoms you might experience in the lead up to a herpes outbreak, as well as what you can look for on someone else to help figure out whether or not they're a carrier. 

Myth 2: HSV-1 only affects your mouth and HSV-2 only affects your genitals

Another common myth is that HSV-1, the most common type of herpes, only causes cold sores around the mouth and gums, and that HSV-2, which is less common, only ever causes sores on the genitals.

Like many myths, this is a misconception based on the frequency at which HSV-1 and HSV-2 tend to affect different parts of the body.

If you have HSV-1, you can still give someone genital herpes through physical contact, meaning oral sex could be all it takes to transfer the virus. HSV-1 can also be spread through oral contact like a kiss. HSV-2, on the other hand, is usually only spread through sexual contact. However, it's also possible—but extremely rare—to transmit HSV-2 orally. 

Myth 3: Herpes is curable using herbs, vitamins or other natural remedies

Unfortunately, HSV-1 and HSV-2 are lifelong viral infections without any known cure. However, both types of herpes can be treated using antiviral medications like valacyclovir, which reduce the risk of HSV-2 and HSV-1 transmission and help to control outbreaks.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped the alternative medicine industry from proposing a variety of “all-natural” herpes cures and vitamins for herpes, from herbal combinations of garlic and echinacea to lemon balm and various natural extracts.

The reality is that while some of these products might provide temporary relief from the physical discomfort produced by cold sores and herpes lesions (although none are as effective as herpes medication), absolutely none of these alternative treatments will cure herpes. 

For the record, let us be clear: There is no herpes cure currently in existence. Once you have it, you have it for life.

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Some keep their breakouts at bay with a once daily pill. Connect with a healthcare provider and discover your treatment options.

Myth 4: There’s only one type of herpes

“Herpes” isn’t just herpes—it’s actually one of several different types of the virus, from a herpes simplex viral infection (HSV) such as HSV-1 or HSV-2 to other forms of herpes, such as herpes zoster (shingles).

Each type of the herpes virus is slightly different, remaining dormant in a different part of your body between outbreaks. HSV-1 (or herpes simplex 1) is the most prevalent variant of herpes, affecting around half of all adults or, according to the World Health Organization, about 65% of people aged 14-49 around the world. 

Myth 5: Without an outbreak, you can’t transmit herpes

This is another extremely common herpes-related myth, and one that’s responsible for many cases of HSV-1 transmission and HSV-2 transmission.

While outbreaks are the most likely time during which you can transmit herpes through oral or sexual contact, it’s also possible to transmit herpes to another person even if you aren’t going through an outbreak.

In fact, many people transmit herpes to other people without ever knowing they have the virus, as herpes is asymptomatic in around 80% of infected people.

Myth 6: Using a condom means you can’t transmit herpes

Using a condom reduces your risk of transmitting herpes to sexual partners, making it a good general practice. However, wearing a condom doesn’t mean there’s no risk of you transmitting herpes to your partner (or your sexual partner transmitting herpes to you).

Most studies show that condoms reduce the risk of herpes transmission by 30% to 50%. While condoms are highly effective at preventing the spread of hepatitis and HIV, they unfortunately aren’t 100% effective at preventing the spread of herpes.

Myth 7: Herpes can lead to cervical cancer

Because of its acronym (HSV), herpes is often confused with the human papillomavirus, which is commonly known as HPV.

HPV is a group of viruses that are highly common (in certain parts of the world, it’s even more common than herpes), some of which are potentially cancer-causing. Only a small number of HPV strains are linked to cancer—right now, it’s 13 out of the more than 100 different strains.

HSV-1 and HSV-2, on the other hand, are not linked to cervical cancer. While herpes can be a frustrating virus with its own set of negative effects, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest herpes increases the risk of developing any type of cancer.

Myth 8: You can only get herpes if you sleep around

This is another myth that’s completely incorrect. Herpes is an extremely common virus that can be transmitted easily, meaning it’s definitely not something that only promiscuous people need to worry about.

In fact, an estimated two thirds of the world’s population under 50 years of age are believed to be infected with HSV-1. Genital herpes is also extremely common, with more than one in every six individuals aged 14 to 49 believed to have the virus, according to the CDC.

Since herpes can easily spread from an asymptomatic person to their sexual partner, it’s very common for people to acquire the virus despite having few sexual partners. As such, this myth is completely untrue. You definitely don’t need to sleep around to be at risk of getting herpes.

Myth 9: Herpes is always included in an STD test

Many people assume that herpes is included in every STD test—something that isn’t always the case.

Because herpes is so common, many doctors and testing facilities don’t include it in a standard STD testing panel. Often, you’ll have to specifically request a herpes test to check whether you have an infection or not.

Another factor that complicates herpes testing is the fact that it’s difficult to test for herpes if you don’t have visible lesions. Most herpes tests require a doctor to “unroof,” or scrape off, a sample from the lesion—something that isn’t possible if you don’t have visible herpes symptoms.

If you think you might have herpes, your best bet is to talk to your doctor about getting a specialized herpes test. Our Herpes Testing 101 guide goes into detail about all the different types of tests available to you.

Myth 10: Herpes means the end of your sex life

One of the most damaging negative effects of herpes isn’t the flu-like initial symptoms or lesions caused by the virus itself, but the effects it can have on your self esteem and sexual confidence after learning that you’re infected.

While herpes can dampen your enthusiasm for sex, it’s important to keep things in perspective if you’re infected. How common is herpes? Herpes is an extremely common virus, with an estimated one in six people aged 14 to 49 being infected.

It’s also a virus that’s extremely easy to treat through medication, meaning there’s no need for you to fret about your future sex life. The vast majority of people with herpes have completely normal sex lives that aren’t adversely affected by having HSV-1 or HSV-2.

If you want to learn more about having sex with herpes, check out our Complete Guide to Having Sex With Herpes

Myth 11: Treating herpes is expensive and difficult

Finally, another frustrating myth about herpes is that it’s expensive and difficult to treat. Luckily, this isn’t true. Herpes medication is inexpensive and widely available from a variety of different brands, many of which provide affordable generic medication to treat and control outbreaks.

Valacyclovir, which is the active ingredient in well-known herpes medication Valtrex, is now sold in the United States as a generic medication. This means herpes medication is more affordable than it’s ever been, making the cost of controlling outbreaks extremely low.

Better yet, herpes medication is easy to take and usually only need to be used for a few days to stay in control of outbreaks, meaning there’s no need to make major changes to your lifestyle if you experience occasional HSV-1 or HSV-2 outbreaks.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.