Herpes and Depression: Coping After Diagnosis

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Depression is common after receiving a herpes diagnosis. People may initially experience feelings of embarrassment, guilt, anger, sadness, and shame after learning they have herpes. Once those emotions settle, depression and anxiety may seep in and be hard to shake.

People with herpes may be worried about what this incurable sexually transmitted infection (STI) means in terms of relationships and having kids. Others may be overcome with anxiety about having to disclose their status to not only current sexual partners but future ones as well.

Without support, these feelings can spiral out of control and undermine both your health and quality of life.

This article starts by explaining what herpes is and what to expect if you've experienced a first outbreak. It then explores the signs and causes of depression, and what you can do to better cope with your diagnosis.

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Herpes Impact and Management

If you have herpes, you are not alone. It is an incredibly common disease that affects more than one out of six people ages 14 to 49 in the United States. Many people living with herpes don't even realize they have it as the disease is often asymptomatic (without symptoms).

Genital herpes is most commonly caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) but increasingly by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). HSV-1, more commonly associated with cold sores, can be spread to the genitals by oral sex.

Herpes is neither a life-threatening illness nor one that will necessarily impact your life over the long term. For most people, the first outbreak will be the worst. After that, the frequency and severity will tend to taper off.

This is especially true if your first outbreak was caused by HSV-1. With a genital HSV-1 infection, recurrence is far less common, and, in some cases, the first outbreak may be your last.

Even if you have HSV-2, antiviral drugs like Valtrex (valacyclovir) and Zovirax (acyclovir) shorten the duration and severity of outbreaks. If needed, daily antivirals can be prescribed to keep the virus under control and reduce the risk of transmission to others.

Herpes Testing

If you have an outbreak, getting an HSV test can identify which type of herpes you have and help direct the appropriate course of treatment.

Coping With a Herpes Diagnosis

Learning you have herpes can be stressful because of the stigma attached to the disease. But it is important to remember that herpes is simply a virus and that the vast majority of people with HSV do not have symptoms.

As such, you should not blame yourself for getting herpes or be accused of being "irresponsible." Similarly, you can't necessarily blame someone for giving you herpes. It may very well have been passed on to you by someone who didn't even realize they were infected.

Moreover, even with condoms, HSV can be passed through skin not covered by a condom.

While these facts may help ease any feelings of shame or anger, this doesn't mean that living with herpes is without challenges.

Among them, the very act of disclosing your status to a sexual partner can be extremely stressful. On the other hand, avoiding disclosure can have even greater consequences if transmission occurs.

This is where your healthcare provider can help. By bringing your partner with you to your healthcare provider's office, they can learn what herpes is, how the virus is transmitted, and ways to reduce their risk of infection.

With the proper precautions, you can date, have a happy and fulfilling sex life, and safely have children if you have herpes. By educating yourself and your partner, you can start to normalize herpes in your lives and reduce stress and anxiety.

Herpes and Depression

Depression is common among people with genital herpes. Here too, stigma is largely to blame.

A 2018 study published in Psychiatry Research found that people with HSV-2 (the most common cause of genital herpes) were more commonly prescribed antidepressants than people with HSV-1 or hepatitis A.

This is largely attributed to the fact that people don't necessarily feel blame for getting cold sores or a non-sexually transmitted infection like hepatitis A.

Even compared to people with hepatitis B and HIV—infections that are sexually transmitted—people with HSV-2 have greater bouts of depression because you can't "see" hepatitis B or HIV in the way that you can genital herpes.

Some people with herpes are more prone to depression than others. These may be due to factors unassociated with herpes or those that compound the symptoms of depression, such as:

  • Poor coping skills
  • Isolation and a lack of social support
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Secrecy
  • A stressful lifestyle
  • Insufficient treatment

The problem with leaving depression untreated is that the underlying stress can trigger herpes outbreaks. This is why it is important to speak with your healthcare provider if you are unable to cope with your diagnosis.

What to Do

Depression is a disease. You can't wish it away or pretend that it isn't there. Whatever the cause, you can benefit from treatment. This may include counseling, medications, or self-help therapies. The first step is recognizing that there is a problem.

Here are some things you should do if you have difficulty coping with your herpes diagnosis:

  • Recognize the signs of depression: These include persistent feelings of sadness or a loss of interest in things you otherwise enjoy. There may be changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, concentration, daily behavior, or self-esteem.
  • Seek treatment: If you are experiencing signs of depression, seek medical help. The mainstay of treatment is usually medications (such as antidepressants), talk therapy (including cognitive behavioral therapy), or both.
  • Build a support network: Isolation fuels depression and makes the symptoms worse. If you are unable or reluctant to reach out to friends or family, ask your healthcare provider about in-person or online support groups.
  • Deal with substance abuse: This may include joining groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or getting help through an alcohol/substance treatment center.
  • Practice disclosure: If you need to disclose your status to a sexual partner, sit down with your healthcare provider, a counselor, or a trusted family member to practice what you will say. Consider all the possible responses and build a strategy to better cope with whatever response you receive.

If you have feelings of suicide or self-harm, dial 988 to speak with a crisis counselor at the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

5 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet.

  2. Sauerbrei A. Herpes genitalis: diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Geburtshilfe Frauenheilkd. 2016 Dec;76(12):1310–7, doi:10.1055/s-0042-116494

  3. Gale SD, Berrett AN, Erickson LD, Brown BL, Hedges DW. Association between virus exposure and depression in US adults. Psychiatry Res. 2018 Mar;261:73-79. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.12.037

  4. Wang X, Zhang L, Lei Y, et al. Meta-analysis of infectious agents and depression. Sci Rep. 2014;4:4530. doi: 10.1038/srep04530

  5. Ives AM, Bertke AS. Stress hormones epinephrine and corticosterone selectively modulate herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and HSV-2 productive infections in adult sympathetic, but not sensory, neurons. J Virol. 2017;91(13):e00582-17. doi:10.1128/JVI.00582-17

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.