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How to Talk To Your Partner About Herpes

Two people on a bus talking about the Herpes virus.

How to Talk To Your Partner About Herpes

Disclosing herpes to a new partner can sometimes feel scary but it doesn’t have to be.

Daye Wave Divider

Written by
Valentina Milanova

Illustration by

Sabrina Bezerra, Erin Rommel & Maria Papazova

Reviewed by
Sarah Montagu (NPs, SRH). Sarah is a highly qualified sexual and reproductive health nurse with 15+ years of experience.


4th July 2024

Let's be clear: herpes is super common. It's so common, in fact, that around 67% of the world's population under age 50 has herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Meanwhile, 13% of the world's under-50s have herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

This means that if you don't have some form of the herpes simplex virus, you're the unusual one.

Despite how overwhelmingly common this infection is, it still faces immense stigma. Being diagnosed with a form of oral or genital herpes can feel overwhelming, embarrassing, and confusing.

Luckily, a herpes diagnosis doesn't mean your sex life is over. Talking to your partners about your herpes status is essential for continuing to have healthy happy relationships. Here are a few tips about how to disclose to someone you have herpes in the best possible way.

Do I need to disclose that I have herpes virus?

Yes, disclosing your herpes status to any current or new partners before you get intimate is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it allows your partner to make an informed decision about their own health and sexual activity. Secondly, honesty and openness are foundational to a healthy relationship. While it might seem daunting, most people appreciate honesty, and this conversation can strengthen your bond.

It's important to note that while herpes is a very common condition, many people don’t know much about it. About one in eight people aged 14-49 in the United States have genital herpes, although up to 90% don't even know they have the virus. Your partner may have it themselves without even knowing it!

Many people lead fulfilling sexual lives while managing their herpes through methods like antiviral medication and safe sex practices. With this in mind, let's explore how to have the herpes conversation.

Having the herpes conversation

It's natural to feel scared about talking to a new partner about your oral or genital herpes, but with just a little preparation you can go into the conversation with confidence.

Start by knowing the facts

Herpes, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) globally. To have an informed conversation with your partner, it's crucial to understand and convey accurate information about this condition.

There are two main types of herpes: HSV-1, primarily causing oral herpes (commonly known as cold sores), and HSV-2, which is usually responsible for genital herpes. Both types can cause sores in either the oral or genital area and can be spread through sexual contact, including oral sex.

HSV-1 is often contracted during childhood through non-sexual contact and can remain dormant for years. HSV-2 is more commonly associated with sexual activity. While herpes symptoms can include painful sores, many people experience mild symptoms or none at all, making them unaware of their herpes status.

Prepare for the conversation

While you don't need to write a whole speech, having some idea of the things you want to say can be beneficial.

Before you sit down to talk, think about what you want to say. You might even practise or jot down key points. Being prepared can help you feel more confident and ensure you cover important topics like symptoms, transmission, and safe sex practices.

As well as thinking about the topics you'll want to cover, it's a good idea to also plan the tone and wording you'll use when you tell your partner about your diagnosis. If you frame the discussion in an emotional and negative light, it's more likely that your new partner will react negatively, too. You might want to prepare a few more neutral phrases you can use.

Negatively-charged language to avoid:

  • "I've got some bad news to share."
  • "Don't freak out/be angry/get upset."
  • "I've got a huge problem I need to tell you about."

More neutral alternatives:

  • "I have something I would like to discuss with you before we take our relationship further."
  • "I really care about you so I want to have an honest conversation about our sexual health."

Choose the right time and place

When you feel ready to have the talk, find a private, comfortable setting where you won't be interrupted. The timing of this conversation often depends on the nature and seriousness of your relationship. It's generally advisable to talk about it before entering into a sexual relationship. However, if you're in a new relationship or are on a first date, you might wait until you feel there is potential for a more serious connection.

It's best to avoid having this conversation during times of high stress or in settings where there are lots of distractions. Avoid public places like restaurants or cafes where privacy is limited. Choose a relaxed, private environment where you both feel comfortable and secure.

Be direct and honest

When you tell your partner that you have herpes, it's important to be direct and honest. Don't beat around the bush; provide factual information and dispel common myths about STIs.

For instance, start by explaining when you received your diagnosis and explain the type of herpes infection you have, what its symptoms are like, and how transmitting herpes can be prevented.

However, while speaking seriously and directly is important, try not to act detached from the situation. Sometimes it's helpful to share your personal experience with herpes, such as how you manage it and how it affects your life. This can make the conversation feel more relatable and less clinical.

Tackle the myths and misconceptions

Address any common misconceptions they may have about herpes. For example, you might need to clarify that herpes can be dormant and asymptomatic, and that not everyone experiences frequent or severe outbreaks.

Part of being honest is helping to reduce the stigma around herpes. Reassure your partner that it’s a common condition and doesn’t reflect on anyone’s character or lifestyle.

Listen to your partner

Be prepared for various reactions. Some may need time to process the information or have questions. Be patient and open to their feelings.

Everyone reacts differently to sensitive information. Some may want time to process, others may have questions. Be ready to give your partner space if they need it and offer to continue the conversation later if they're not ready to respond immediately.

It's important to note that one conversation may not be enough. Be open to discussing this topic again in the future, especially as your relationship evolves. This ongoing dialogue can help build trust and ensure both partners feel informed and comfortable.

Discuss safe sex practices

Pealed banana with a condom put on top.

When talking to your partner about herpes, it's crucial to discuss safe sex practices. This conversation is not just about reducing the risk of herpes transmission but also about fostering a responsible and caring sexual relationship.

Clearly explain how the risk of transmission can be reduced. Talk about using barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams consistently during sexual activity and emphasise the role of antiviral medication in reducing viral shedding and outbreaks. Keep in mind, however, that the infection can still be transmitted via areas that aren't covered by condoms or dental dams.

It's a good idea to discuss the importance of protecting both partners not just during a herpes outbreak but consistently, as asymptomatic shedding can occur.

Ask your partner about their sexual health and STI status

Keep in mind that talking about STIs is a two-way street. Just like you're opening up about having herpes, it's important to chat with potential partners about their sexual health too. The conversation can even be a good precursor to getting an STI test together.

Remember: just because you have a herpes infection doesn't mean you're immune from other sexually transmitted diseases. Asking a new partner to take an STI test before you get intimate together is not only completely reasonable, but highly recommended in order to protect everyone's health!

The Herpes virus under a microscope.

Living with Herpes

Having herpes – or any STI, for that matter – doesn't have to put a damper on your love life or how you connect with people. By being open, honest, and informed, you're taking huge steps towards maintaining not only your own health but also nurturing your relationships.

If you’re still struggling with living with herpes, the Herpes Virus Association has a friendly helpline to answer any further questions you may have. 

Remember, having an STI isn't a reflection of who you are; it's just one part of the vast puzzle that makes up your life. Embrace the fact that with the right care, communication, and a bit of understanding, you can still have an amazing and fulfilling romantic and sexual life. 

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