Medically reviewed by Michele Emery, DNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/17/2020
Whether you’re telling a close friend or a romantic partner, letting someone else know that you have herpes can be a nerve-racking experience.
Luckily, it doesn’t need to be an event you fear or feel anxious about. Herpes is a very common virus, with an estimated 11 percent of the population infected with the HSV-2 (genital) form of the virus and the majority of people infected with HSV-1 (oral).
Below, we’ve provided a range of tips, tactics and techniques to help you tell other people you have herpes without fear, anxiety or other common issues.
Before you tell anyone that you have genital herpes, it’s worth asking yourself whether or not they need to know. Your friends, colleagues and family probably don’t need to know about it, as there’s minimal risk of them catching the virus from you through sexual contact.
If you have close friends and the subject of herpes comes up in discussion, feel free to tell them about your HSV-1 or HSV-2 status if you feel comfortable. Just remember that you don’t owe an explanation or confession to anyone you’re not putting at risk of catching the virus from you.
The one person you’ll definitely need to have “the chat” with is your sexual partner/s. This is very important even if you rarely experience herpes outbreaks, as genital herpes can be spread from an infected person into an uninfected person even without any visible outbreak symptoms.
Coming out as “herpes positive” can feel stressful and difficult, especially when it’s directed at a person you care about and with whom you’d like a romantic or sexual future. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be such a big deal if you know how to address it.
One way to get over the nervousness of telling a partner you have herpes is to practice ahead of time. Make note of the key points you want to include (we’ll cover those below) and practice the “script” a few times in front of the mirror until you feel comfortable talking about.
As a virus, genital herpes is an annoyance at best and a frustration at worst — a virus that leads to irritating but occasional outbreaks that can easily be controlled with medication. Unless your immune system is majorly compromised, an outbreak is unlikely to seriously hurt you.
However, the social effects of genital herpes can be brutal. It’s easy to overanalyze the fact that you have genital herpes, putting you in a position where your self esteem is hurt and your ability to look at the infection in context becomes very difficult.
The reality is that genital herpes is common, and it doesn’t need to mean the end of your sex life. Remember that it’s a common virus, that it affects several people you walk by on the city sidewalk every day, and that it’s easy to manage. You’re not the only one.
One of the hardest aspects of telling someone you have genital herpes is choosing the right moment. Perfect, distraction-free one-on-one conversations rarely play out like they do in the movies, meaning you might need to improvise a little in this category.
If you need to tell a romantic and potential sexual partner that you have herpes, it’s essential that you do this before you have any sexual contact. Herpes can spread easily, and there’s a real risk of transmission even if you aren’t experiencing an outbreak.
Generally, the best time to explain to your partner that you have herpes is when you start to think that sexual contact is on the horizon. After a date, your partner might invite you to their home, sending an obvious signal that they’re open to the idea of escalating the relationship.
Once you’re alone and comfortable, it’s generally the best time to get the herpes conversation out of the way. In the next sections, we’ve provided some techniques that you can use to help make the conversation a little more manageable.
Pretend you’re in your partner’s shoes. Of the following two sentences, which would you rather hear come out of your mouth?
“I’m terribly sorry to tell you this, and I know it’s going to be a major blow to us and our future together, but I have genital herpes.”
“I need to let you know something. I have herpes. We can still have a relationship and it isn’t a major problem, but I thought you should know before we went any further.”
Obviously, most people would prefer to hear the second sentence. When you let your partner or person of interest know that you have herpes, it’s important to frame it accurately. Herpes isn’t a big deal — it’s an easy virus to deal with — and while genital sores are an inconvenience, there's no real need for negativity.
The first response — which, unfortunately, is what a lot of people with herpes may sound like as a result of negativity and nervousness — treats the virus far more seriously than it should, adding a negative connotation to a statement that definitely doesn’t warrant it.
It also begins with an apology, something you don’t need to make. You’ve done nothing wrong by having genital herpes. There’s no need to apologize for your infection status. Instead, get the point across openly, honestly and directly to your partner.
When you approach the “I have herpes” conversation with a direct, open and honest approach, it is not likely to backfire. Instead, you can judge your partner’s reaction, listen to their response and use some of the techniques listed below to add more context to the conversation.
People may have an irrational, inaccurate perception of genital herpes. Since it’s a sexually transmitted virus, they may group it in the “dangerous STDs” category of their mind, often beside diseases and viruses with much more severe symptoms.
Because of this, it’s often necessary to follow up the “I have herpes” part of the conversation with some quick statistics to provide context.
One way to do this is to let your partner know how common it is. According to the World Health Organization, when it comes to HSV-2, an estimated 11 percent of the world population ages 15 to 49 have the virus — meaning you can correctly and accurately let your partner know that at least one in ten people is infected with the virus.
To put it in context, you can ask your partner to imagine that one in ten of the people they met that day have the exact same “confession” to make at some point, assuming they know they’re infected. Sometimes, this is all it takes to put genital herpes in context as a common type of virus.
Despite what some people with genital herpes think, it’s unlikely for a partner to reject you outright as a sexual or romantic prospect after learning that you have herpes.
It’s far more likely, however, that they will have questions. Most people aren’t well informed on how herpes works and how it can affect them. They may not be aware of how herpes relates to sexual activity, or how traditional contraceptives like condoms aren’t always effective.
If your partner is curious about the virus, it is worthwhile to share some information about how often you experience outbreaks. If you have asymptomatic herpes, you can even let your partner know that you don’t get the visual lesions that other people with HSV-2 might.
Do you take medication to treat your herpes? If your partner asks, let them know. Sometimes, a little transparency and comfort is all your partner is looking for, and a quick, honest answer to a curious question can help make the mood more transparent and comfortable.
With this said, there are some answers you might wish to avoid.
You are under no obligation to tell your partner how (or from whom) you contracted the virus. If they ask, feel free to gently let them know that it’s a private matter if you’d prefer to keep the finer details to yourself.
People can react differently to hearing that you have genital herpes. Sometimes, you might be surprised to discover that the person you’re “coming out” to also has herpes, and was dreading the prospect of sharing their status with you.
Sometimes, your partner might be well informed about herpes and willing to take a test to check if they also have the virus before having a relationship. Some people might simply not care and feel comfortable having a relationship with you even knowing about your HSV-2 status.
On the other hand, some people — even people who might have been highly interested in you — might not feel comfortable having a sexual or romantic relationship after finding out about your genital herpes. The reasons can differ, but for many people, any STD is a hard “no.”
The key point here is that you can’t expect everyone to react the same way. One way to make it easier for your partner is to give them time. Suggest that they take a day or two to think about it before contacting you to see how they feel.
If someone is seriously interested in you, they might want to take a day or two to research the facts about herpes before giving you a “yes.” Or, they could just need an hour to double-check the data before inviting you back over for a cup of coffee.
Even if your partner is completely fine with your herpes status, it’s important to practice safe and responsible sex. This means avoiding sex during outbreaks — which are when the risk of herpes transmission is highest — and using physical protection such as a condom or dental dam.
It means talking to your doctor about the potential use of antiviral drugs like valacyclovir, which can decrease the amount of viral shedding produced by the herpes virus and lower your risk of infecting others.
It also means accepting that there’s always a risk of transmission, even with the use of condoms and avoidance of sex during outbreaks. Even asymptomatic herpes can spread in sex, meaning there’s no way to be 100 percent protected when you’re getting intimate with your partner.
Genital herpes affects hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom have no problems enjoying a normal, fulfilling sex life.
Our complete guide to having sex when you have herpes covers everything you need to know about sexual activity if you have genital herpes, from the most effective antiviral medications to lower your transmission risk to signs and symptoms your partner should be aware of.
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