I have genital herpes. There, I said it. I’ve alluded to it on this blog before, generally burying it deep into other posts so that maybe you’ll see it and maybe you won’t, but now I’m just coming right out and saying it. Why? For a couple of reasons. The first being that there is still so much stupid stigma attached to STDs, including herpes, and so I think it’s important to talk about it (I’m pretty sure I’ve typed that sentence 600 other times on this blog about various other topics). Herpes is incredibly common– it is estimated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men have it, and up to 85% of those infected do not know they have it because they never show any symptoms. A friend told me something interesting about the stigma attached to herpes recently, though I’m not 100% sure if it’s true. He said that there used to be no stigma attached to it, and it was just this thing that a lot of people had. It wasn’t until the first suppressive drugs for it were developed that the stigma came about, because they marketed herpes like a dirty secret that you didn’t want other people to know about, and that was why you needed their drug.
The other reason that I decided to write this piece is that when I tried to find information online about what pregnancy did to herpes symptoms, I could find very little. I talked to my midwife about it and she wasn’t able to tell me all that much, either. So I wanted someone else who googles this question to be able to find someone else talking about their own experience. Here’s what I can find out easily: pregnancy can exacerbate herpes symptoms. Acyclovir is safe to take during pregnancy to suppress symptoms. If I’m having an outbreak at the time of delivery, delivering vaginally will not be an option for me. That’s about the extent of the information that I’ve been able to find, which sucks, because it turns out that pregnancy is making me incredibly uncomfortable and incredibly symptomatic in terms of my herpes.
I’m not someone who is normally very symptomatic. They say that the longer you have herpes, the less frequent your outbreaks get. I was prescribed Acyclovir at a suppressive dose, which is given to people who have 6 outbreaks or more per year. I have never taken it as prescribed, though, choosing to only take it when I could feel an outbreak coming on. I’m not sure when I contracted herpes. Many people that have herpes will have an initial outbreak a couple of weeks after their exposure. I’m unable to pin mine down, but I have a couple of different options. That might seem impossible that I wouldn’t notice something like that going on in my genital region, but when I was an active alcoholic and addict, I didn’t take very good care of myself. I was able to ignore things until they went away, and a lot of the pain was dulled due to my use. It’s possible that what I thought was a severe latex allergy was actually an initial outbreak, but it also might have been a latex allergy. I’m not sure.
I didn’t start to really notice symptoms until I was in rehab. I didn’t think it was herpes, because I wasn’t having outbreaks that look like those scary images that you see when you google it. Plus, I didn’t see much talk of the kind of symptoms I was having and didn’t know what they were. I know them now to be prodromol symptoms, and they’re still the most common symptoms that I get. For me, it’s nerve pain in my upper legs and vulva. Basically the skin of my thighs and vulva feel achy, like when you have the flu and it hurts to touch. But the pain is so severe that putting clothing on actually hurts. My quad muscles will also get incredibly sore even though I haven’t done any physical exercise, getting to the point that they sometimes give out on me when I walk. In terms of what people think of a “traditional” outbreak of blisters, I have two locations on my labia where I get those. The disease always manifests in the same location, because it is the same nerves that are affected. They are never really painful, they look more like ingrown hairs than blisters, and they’re more itchy than anything. And so, this didn’t look like what I thought herpes looked like, so that’s not what I thought it was.
Because my symptoms were manifesting right when I got sober, I initially chalked it up to my body adjusting to sobriety. It was only when they continued, on and off, for several months that I went to Planned Parenthood. Herpes is hard to diagnose. They can only test when you’re having an outbreak, and it has to be at the beginning of the outbreak, before the blisters scab over. So the swab test was inconclusive, but my blood test came back positive for HSV-II. And Acyclovir helped my symptoms. So I’m pretty sure that’s what I have.
It’s funny, because before I was diagnosed, I always told people that herpes was no big deal. It doesn’t affect fertility, and really, you just get a few outbreaks per year (some people get less and some people never get one), and is that really so bad? I always talked about how there shouldn’t be shame and stigma associated with it. And then I found out that I had it and I was torn. Because I still felt that way, but I couldn’t help but blame myself and wonder if I had taken better care of myself if the outcome would have been different. Because I didn’t always make smart decisions when I was drinking and there’s a very good chance that one of those decisions led to me contracting herpes. At this point, I’ve come to terms with it. It’s a part of who I am, and it doesn’t really come up all that much.
Until, that is, I got pregnant. While the prodromol symptoms characterize the majority of my outbreaks when I’m not pregnant, the itchy blisters characterize the majority of my pregnancy thus far. I’m pretty much always uncomfortable and always symptomatic. I’ve started taking the Acyclovir twice daily, as prescribed, and it’s not really seeming to suppress anything. I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that vaginal delivery may not be an option for me, which makes me really sad. It’s something that I really want to experience, and I’m holding out hope that I’ll be asymptomatic when the time comes to deliver.
There are so many things that make you uncomfortable when you’re pregnant– I think that pregnancy is characterized by being uncomfortable in a lot of ways. Between my constant vomiting, my achy joints, my chronic congestion, and my ever-present herpes symptoms, pregnancy is definitely not a walk in the park. I think it’s important to share this though. I wonder how many other women have had similar experiences when they were pregnant. I know I can’t be the only one, but it’s hard to tell because people aren’t really talking about it. If 1 in 4 women really has it, why aren’t we talking about it? It’s time to start.