Addressing the Consequences of Herpes Stigma

Have you ever referred to glitter as craft herpes?

Have you ever laughed when a friend said "She probably has herpes" about someone you didn't like?

If so, you've contributed to the stigma associated with herpes infection.

A close up of a hand to a person's face (potentially biting nails)

LWA-Dann Tardif / Getty Images

The Impact of Herpes Stigma

The negative impact that a positive herpes test has on someone's life can be enormous.

The stigma associated with herpes can make a newly diagnosed person may feel that their life is over or that no one will ever love them again. They may blame their partner for ruining their future and may sink into severe depression.

Genital herpes, typically caused by HSV-2, is contagious. It causes genital lesions and sores and it is rarely associated with severe health problems, more commonly among people who are immunocompromised. It can be deadly for newborn infants.

Oral herpes, which is usually caused by a different infection, HSV-1, is very common. While it isn't usually sexually transmitted (except sometimes during oral sex), the name often carries the same stigma as genital herpes.

Sources of Stigma

Negative imagery about herpes pervades pop culture and social discourse. In fact, in some circumstances, the word herpes has become almost interchangeable with dirty. This can be seen in how often the two words are linked. A Google search in the Spring of 2015 found more than 600,000 matches for the terms used in close proximity to each other on a website.

An examination of how herpes is discussed in mainstream culture suggests that the stigma of herpes has little or nothing to do with the actual disease. One user's definition of herpes by association on the site Urban Dictionary states that it is

... a stigma against an individual who hangs out with an unhygenic person. For instance your friend points out to you, ew OMG that guy you are with has herpes on his face! Then they think you will become dirty or infected if you keep hanging around them. Herpes is transmittable so you have to cut the ties! Youll get a terrible reputation hanging around with a herpes kid.”

There are also numerous other pop culture examples such as the lyrics of the Industrial Revolution song Immortal Techniques, which state, "My metaphors are dirty like herpes but harder to catch.”

The Social Consequences

The stigma around herpes can have substantial individual and societal consequences.

  • Herpes stigma is bad for individual mental health since it is linked to increased stress, depression, and other negative emotional consequences.
  • Herpes stigma is bad for physical health since it may make a person less likely to seek a diagnosis and treatment.
  • Herpes stigma is also bad for society. It may even increase the rates of transmission in the population. After all, concerns about stigma and rejection are a major reason why people don't disclose herpes infections to their partners.

It's important that you get medical attention if you think that you might have herpes, another sexually transmitted infection (STI), or another genital infection. Most of these conditions can be treated but will worsen if they aren't treated. And they can cause serious issues down the road—like decreased fertility or birth defects.

Additionally, causes of genital lesions vary, ranging from skin conditions to infections, to cancer. And each condition is treated with a specific medication.

Keep in mind that if you are not diagnosed and treated, you could transmit an STI to a partner, who could potentially experience serious consequences. Certainly, you didn't get herpes on purpose. It's best to get past the stigma and to take care of your health as soon as possible.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merin A, Pachankis JE. The Psychological Impact of Genital Herpes StigmaJournal of Health Psychology. 2010;16(1):80-90. doi:10.1177/1359105310367528

  2. Urban Dictionary. Herpes by association.

  3. Wang K, Merin A, Rendina HJ, Pachankis JE. Genital herpes stigma: Toward the measurement and validation of a highly prevalent yet hidden public health problemStigma and Health. 2018;3(1):27-34. doi:10.1037/sah0000067

Additional Reading
  • Mirza RA, Eick-Cost A, Otto JL. The risk of mental health disorders among U.S. military personnel infected with human immunodeficiency virus, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2000-2011. MSMR. 2012 May;19(5):10-3.

  • Myers JL, Buhi ER, Marhefka S, Daley E, Dedrick R. Associations between individual and relationship characteristics and genital herpes disclosure. J Health Psychol. 2015 Mar 26. pii:1359105315575039.

  • Pratt LA, Xu F, McQuillan GM, Robitz R. The association of depression, risky sexual behaviours and herpes simplex virus type 2 in adults in NHANES, 2005-2008. Sex Transm Infect. 2012 Feb;88(1):40-4. doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2011-050138.

  • Urban Dictionary. (2007) "Herpes by Association."

  • Barnack-Tavlaris JL, Reddy DM, Ports K. Psychological adjustment among women living with genital herpes. J Health Psychol. 2011 Jan;16(1):12-21.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.