Fight the Stigma: Living With Herpes
By feature writer Kiera Cv
As I am writing this, I sit behind my laptop screen with a giant, white blob of Abreva on my lip; a look I’ve been sporting since I was four years old. Abreva is a cold sore treatment that I’ve sworn by my entire life. The first cold sore I remember having was the most painful, bloody, ghastly looking blister on the side of my lip (this cold sore is kind of iconic in my family as I made heads turn on the streets of Toronto). Even though with age my cold sores have been less frequent and more subtle, it is still a giant inconvenience.
My cold sores are a symptom of Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (different from HSV-2, which causes genital herpes). Although it cannot be proven that my mother’s and grandmother’s susceptibility to cold sores was passed down to me, it’s what I like to believe. I was infected with HSV-1 at a very early age and it is an infection that stays in your body forever as there is no cure. Thankfully, there are no significant health risks with herpes except for maybe some slight emotional trauma.
When I have a giant white blob of cream on my lip, everyone knows that I have herpes. Truthfully, I didn’t know cold sores were considered herpes until I was around 15 and of course at that age it brought a lot of shame. The fact that people use the term, “I’m clean” when referring to testing negatively towards sexually transmitted infections creates a stigma that those living with STIs are “dirty”. Even though I knew I hadn’t contracted herpes in any sexual manner, and in most cases HSV-1 isn’t contracted in any sexual manner, I still felt that “dirty” humiliation. The comments ensue and for about a week (the average length my cold sores live for) all I hear is, “there’s something on your lip,” or “ew herpes! Kiera has herpes!”.
Planned Parenthood claims that more than 50% of Americans are affected by oral herpes, meaning you or someone you know is probably affected, but then why do I feel so alone with this?
Recently during my new curiosity with sex education and positivity, I stumbled upon the instagram account @sexelducation. The account is owned by Emily L. Depasse: a sexologist, sex educator and self proclaimed herpes activist. Her goal is to educate and help redefine the narratives around sexually transmitted diseases. From her I found that there is a whole online community of “herpes activists” trying to destigmatize the conversations around oral herpes.
As seen in my own struggle with herpes, it is very normal and common to catch herpes as a child and not just from sexual contact. After a lot of research on my end and snazzy infographics and quotes about herpes I found online, I accepted that this is a part of who I am now. There is no cure for now, so I will simply live as a herpes activist too.
So yes, if you see me with a white blob of medicine on my lip you probably shouldn’t try to kiss me or drink from my water bottle, but you don’t need to hide from me. Herpes happens (both oral and genital), and it’s completely normal.
(check out that cold sore)