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Could I Have Herpes and Not Know It?

Mar. 1, 2012
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Recently, I was intimate and condomless with a new partner. It was a heat-of-the-moment thing and sort of intense. Two days later, he said he was sore from the intensity and admitted to being a bit rough with himself the day after we were together. But he had fun, so we got together a second time one week later, again condomless. Not a word about being sore. The next day, however, he wanted to talk—about the blisters on his shaft and cold sore in his mouth. So the sore really meant a sore. Big difference.

He strongly suggested I gave him an STD (which one at the time wasn't clear). Each of us went to our respective doctors for testing. Turns out his swabs came back positive for HSV-1, but no other STDs. Though I had no symptoms, I had swabs taken anyway; they came back negative, as did all the other STD tests. My doctor is quite convinced I don't have it, though I do have the antibodies—as many adults do.

I've read tons of info, including medical journals, and still feel incredible guilt. To make it worse, this guy keeps blaming me in a very roundabout way that reminds me of my verbally abusive ex-husband. It's agonizing. What's worse is he's suggesting that I sleep around. Not true.

I'm trying to convince myself that within the realm of possibilities:

  • He already had a cold sore and had it on his hands when he was playing solo.
  • I am one of those asymptomatic people

  • He had it already

What confuses me is he also broke out on his back. I know I did not touch him there. I'm not too happy at all that, knowing he had a sore, he still went in.

While I know it's not the end of the world, I am afraid I'm asymptomatic and I'll pass it along. I've had other partners throughout my life—few and far between—and nothing like this has ever happened. Safe sex with latex condoms, I know, I know—but is there any way you might be able to shed some light on asymptomatic shedding? I'm a 50-year-old female who's never looked better in her life. It's not like I want to have sex with every hot man I see, but I sure do enjoy my sexuality. What's a girl to do?

Thank you so much for writing. Herpes—whether oral (usually HSV-1) or genital (usually HSV-2)—is a tricky little beast. As you noted, herpes is very common. According to the American Social Health Association, which runs the national Herpes Resource Center, more than 50% of American adults have oral herpes and 20% have genital herpes, but most people do not realize they're infected. For such a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), herpes carries a lot of stigma, which I think is out of proportion to its effects. It can be painful, and it's not curable, but it is very treatable, and people with herpes can have healthy sex lives. It's not a death sentence.

I'm sorry that your partner has blamed and shamed you. No one deserves that, whether they have an STI or not. You made a mutual decision to have sex without a condom, and you very rightly point out that he knew he had a genital lesion the second time you had sex, so it's not fair for him to shift responsibility to you.

All three of the possibilities you outline are theoretically conceivable. A person who has a herpes infection in one area of the body (genital, oral) could potentially infect another area of the body if they touch an infected area and then immediately touch another area, especially a mucous membrane.

It's also true that many people with herpes do not know they have it, either because their symptoms are very mild, their symptoms are mistaken for something else, or because they shed the virus on their skin in the absence of any visible herpes lesions or sores. People who are shedding the virus on their skin without any symptoms can still infect others. In the absence of lesions or sores, swab tests are not very effective at detecting a herpes infection; blood tests can be done, but they, too, have their limitations. It's totally possible for someone to carry the herpes virus for quite some time before having an outbreak. So, either you or he could have already had the virus. While he is now accusing you of infecting him, it could be the other way around.

You say your health care provider is convinced that you don't have a genital herpes infection. If she or he hasn't already done a blood test for HSV antibodies, you can ask for one. You know already that the safest course of action is to proceed as if you and your partners might have an STI of some sort, and that using condoms lowers the risk of STI transmission, even during asymptomatic shedding. I wouldn't let this incident put a damper on your sex life or make you feel bad about yourself. You can make an informed decision to use or not use condoms, as long as all parties involved are aware of the risks, no one feels coerced or deceived, and everyone is willing to accept the possibility of negative consequences in a mature manner. No sex is completely risk-free, but that doesn't mean we should avoid it!

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.


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