Why Your Herpes May Not Be Your Partner's Fault

There are two common misconceptions about getting herpes. The first is that your partner lied to you about not having herpes if you suddenly have an outbreak. The second is that your partner cheated on you since you haven't had sex with anyone else in years.

While is possible that both are true, there are other explanations for why you may suddenly have had your first herpes outbreak. This articles explores some of the more common reasons and what you can do to prevent or treat a herpes infection.

Young romantic couple in bed
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Timing of Infection

Just because you had your first outbreak doesn't mean you were just infected. It is not uncommon to have been exposed to the virus earlier in life and for the infection to only become symptomatic months or years later.

In the United States, almost one in six adults has herpes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease is often asymptomatic (meaning there are no symptoms) or the symptoms may be so mild that people don't even notice them.

Because of this, many people don't even realize they have herpes until one of their partners has an outbreak. In other words, when someone says, "I didn't know I had herpes," they may be telling the truth.

The herpes virus is also more infectious at certain times than others. Asymptomatic shedding, in which the body suddenly releases viral particles, can increase or decrease—and often for no apparent reason. When viral shedding is low, so too is the risk of transmission.

This means that even if your partner has herpes, they may not have given it to you. In the end, both you and your partner may have been infected by somebody else in the past, and your outbreak only happened to occur now.

Recap

Just because you had your first outbreak of herpes doesn't mean you were recently infected. Many people get infected months or years earlier and will only experience an outbreak in later life.

Other Ways Herpes Is Spread

Another misconception is that you only get genital herpes through vaginal or anal sex.

While it is true that herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) is commonly linked to cold sores and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) is commonly linked to genital herpes, it is possible to genital herpes if someone with a cold sore performs oral sex on you. On the flip side, you can also get a cold sore by performing oral sex on someone with genital herpes.

Herpes autoinoculation is also possible. This is when you touch a cold sore on your mouth and then touch your genitals (or vice versa). Although this is rare, it can occur.

People have also been known to get herpes in their eyes when they accidentally transfer the virus from the genitals or mouth. For this reason, washing hands frequently is important if you have a herpes outbreak of any sort.

Recap

The herpes virus that commonly causes cold sores (called HSV-1) can be passed to the genitals during oral sex.

Herpes Treatment

If you have a genital herpes outbreak, the first thing to do is get treated. Your doctor will likely put you on a short course of antiviral drugs like Famvir (famciclovir), Valtrex (valacyclovir), or Zovirax (acyclovir).

There is also an over-the-counter topical cream called Abreva (docosanol) you can get without a prescription, although it may not be strong enough if the outbreak is severe.

Antiviral drugs neither "cure" herpes nor prevent outbreaks from coming back but rather decrease viral activity so that symptoms disappear.

Although may be uncomfortable to do so, you should also contact sexual partners to inform them of your diagnosis. In this way, they can undergo testing and access treatment if needed.

It often helps if you and your partner speak with a doctor to educate yourself about the infection. Rather than pointing fingers at each other, you and your partner can devise strategies to manage your condition and prevent the further spread of the virus.

Herpes Prevention

As common as genital herpes is, it can be avoided. In addition to practicing safer sex, including the consistent use of condoms and a reduction in the number of sex partners, you and your partner should talk openly and honestly about your sexual history and the ways to reduce the risk of herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Pre-relationship discussions like these aren't meant to weed out potential partners. It is something you do to make informed choices about your sexual health and risks.

If a partner does have herpes, steps can be taken to avoid passing the virus. This includes abstaining from sex until the outbreak clears and taking daily antiviral drugs to keep the virus in check.

Herpes testing is currently not recommended for asymptomatic people unless a sexual partner has been already diagnosed. This is because a positive result has not been shown to either change sexual behaviors or slow the spread of infection, according to the CDC.

In addition, a herpes test cannot tell you when you were infected and who you got the virus from.

Recap

Herpes testing is not recommended unless a sexual partner has already been diagnosed with herpes. The best way to avoid herpes is to practice safer sex and abstain from sex if a partner has an outbreak.

Summary

Having a first herpes outbreak doesn't necessarily mean that you were recently infected. Genital herpes is very common and often causes no symptoms when you are first exposed. For some, symptoms may not develop until months or years after the initial infection.

It is also possible to get genital herpes if someone with a cold sore performs oral sex on you.

A herpes test can confirm if an infection has occurred. Antiviral drugs can then be prescribed to help clear the outbreak. The best way to prevent genital herpes is to practice safer sex and to discuss your sexual history with a partner before having sex.

A herpes test is not recommended to screen potential partners for the disease.

A Word From Verywell

If you're having your first herpes outbreak, take a breath. Being diagnosed with herpes is not the end of the world, although it may feel like it now. Living with herpes can sometimes be complicated, but you can live a full, happy life by taking care of yourself and treating outbreaks promptly if and when one occurs.

Even if outbreaks are frequent, prophylactic (preventive) antivirals can be prescribed to reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks. Speak with your doctor if outbreaks are frequent or difficult to control.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the incubation period for genital herpes?

    The average incubation period for genital herpes is four days, although it can range from two to 12 days from the time of exposure.

  • How can you prevent giving herpes to your partner?

    You can reduce the risk of herpes by consistently using condoms. Even so, this does not completely eliminate the risk. Abstaining from sexual activity during outbreaks and taking a daily antiviral medication can help reduce the risk of passing the virus to your partner.

8 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.
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  2. Tronstein E, Johnston C, Huang ML, et al. Genital shedding of herpes simplex virus among symptomatic and asymptomatic persons with HSV-2 infection. JAMA. 2011 Apr 13;305(14):1441-9. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.420

  3. Glinšek Biškup U, Uršič T, Petrovec M. Laboratory diagnosis and epidemiology of herpes simplex 1 and 2 genital infections. Acta Dermatovenerol Alp Pannonica Adriat. 2015;24(2):31-5. doi:10.15570/actaapa.2015.9

  4. Van Vonderen JJ, Stol K, Buddingh EP, et al. Herpes simplex transmission to chest and face through autoinoculation in an infant. Case Rep. 2017;2017:bcr-2017-220447. doi:10.1136/bcr-2017-220447

  5. Sauerbrei A. Optimal management of genital herpes: current perspectivesInfect Drug Resist. 2016;9:129-41. doi:10.2147/IDR.S96164

  6. Modi S, Van L, Gewirtzman A, et al. Single-day treatment for orolabial and genital herpes: a brief review of pathogenesis and pharmacologyTher Clin Risk Manag. 2008;4(2):409-17. doi:10.2147/tcrm.s1664

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes screening FAQ.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD Facts - Genital herpes (detailed version).

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.