This week the World Health Organisation published figures showing that two-thirds of the world's population under 50 – that's 3.7 billion people – have the herpes virus. That's most of your mates and probably you.
The most common type of herpes – and the one that two-thirds of us have – is the simple herpes virus (AKA type 1, or HSV-1). Traditionally, this is what caused cold sores. Less common is HSV-2, which traditionally caused genital herpes and is more serious. The WHO report says around 417 million people under the age of 50 have this one.
But now, most people agree the definition is arbitrary. You can get type 1 on your genitals and type 2 on your mouth (especially if you've gone down on someone with it).
"If you have oral sex with a partner when you've got a cold sore, you can give them genital herpes," says Marian Nicholson from the Herpes Virus Association advice centre. "But I like to think of it like gardening. You can plant both types of virus in the same spot, but type one tends to do well in a sunny location and type two tends to do well in the shade. Make sense?"
But if most of us have the virus that causes genital herpes, why don't we all exhibit the physical signs? According to the NHS, eight in 10 people with genital herpes don't even know they have it, as not everyone has a reaction to it.
But what is life like if you do have it and you know about it? We spoke to Shannon, 26, from London about living her life with genital herpes.
I picked up herpes when I was 22. I was at university doing my Masters degree and I had a one night stand with a guy on my course. We were kind of mates, but then one night we all went to the pub after a lecture and we ended up sleeping together.
The next day I had this burning sensation – I thought it was cystitis. I went to the doctor and he gave me some antibiotics. But it didn't go away. Then, a few days later, I got some blisters on my vagina, all along my lips. I totally freaked out. I thought I was having a gross reaction to the antibiotics. I went back to my GP. He took one look at me and totally panicked. He told me I had herpes and that I needed to go to the GUM clinic asap. When your doctor reacts like it's the end of the world, you think it actually is the end of the world.
The doctor at the GUM clinic was much more reassuring. They said they'd do some swabs. He explained the whole thing about there being two different types of herpes, gave me some leaflets, said, "Don't worry about this, it's really not a big deal, it's so common," and sent me on my way.
I got home and completely spun out. The only thing I knew about herpes was that it was bad. Nobody wants to have herpes, do they? I wasn't a confident person back then. I'd just got out of a long-term relationship, which had ended pretty badly, and this guy was the first person I'd slept with since my break-up. I was so angry. The guy I'd shagged was a lot older than me, in his forties, and I couldn't believe he didn't know he had it. But when I saw how upset he was when I told him, I knew he had no idea. He's not an arsehole. I was more pissed off at how unlucky it was. Half my mates were going out shagging around, and nothing happened to them. I was convinced I'd never be able to have normal sex again. Like I'd only be able to have sex with partners who accepted my "disease", or other people who had it too, like it was some big dark secret.
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My test results came back and I found out I had type 1. Even though the difference between type 1 and 2 is now pretty much arbitrary, it did make me feel better. Type 1 is traditionally the one on your face, like cold sores. It's supposed to be less serious and the recurrences aren't as bad. Type 2 traditionally is the genital one and is seen as more serious. But it doesn't really matter, because you can get both types anywhere now.
I told a few mates and their reactions were actually quite positive, given the news. One of my best mates actually had it too and I didn't even know. Since then, two more of my mates have now got it.
After I was first diagnosed, I developed proper health anxiety. Having herpes does things to your nervous system. At first, I'd get tingling and jabbing sensations in the back of my legs. I was paranoid about it coming back, which it did every few months in the first year or so. Generally, my recurrences are little itchy spots on my vagina, sometimes they go further back towards my arse – women especially tend to get it up there. I was too embarrassed to go to the doctor, so I bought an antiviral drug called Acyclovir on an online chemist for a while. Taking that helped and I hardly ever get outbreaks now, probably only one or two times a year.
When I get a recurrence, I can't have sex, because that's when I'm contagious. Loads of people don't even know they have it, though, so that's how it spreads. Either that or they just don't care about passing it on. I've been with my boyfriend for a couple of years now. He doesn't have it, but I wouldn't be surprised if I've passed it on and his body didn't react. We've been careful, but not insanely careful. You know, you're not always thinking when you first get with someone and you want to have sex all the time. I kind of see it like my period now; I get little twinges and I know it's coming. I feel run down and feverish. But, to be honest, I hardly ever think about it now.
I've found that if you tell guys like it's a really bad thing, they'll think it's a bad thing. My boyfriend's really into science, so he very quickly just got that it's actually so minor. I do think about what I'd do if I was ever single again. Would I tell a one nigt stand? Probably not, actually, because I don't feel like I'm a risk. I don't want it to be something that defines me.
Names have been changed.
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