One of the most important things we can do in our lives is tend to our needs. Oftentimes, we make our way through each day running on empty, when all that’s needed is a little personal TLC to help us truly be our best selves — and that’s especially true when living with genital herpes.
A herpes diagnosis is generally met with panic, shame, anger, or all of the above, but self-care may be the answer to moving forward. We asked Jessica Shepherd, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist and a member of the of the Verywell Health Medical Review Board, and Jenelle Marie Pierce, executive director of The STI Project and sex educator, to share their tips on what self-care looks like before and during an outbreak.
- Take time to educate yourself.
“There are a lot of misconceptions and myths out there,” says Shepherd. “Once people understand what herpes is, how common it is, that it can be treated — not cured but treated — they feel better about the diagnosis and not so alone. Then that allows them to feel empowered.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six women between the ages of 14 and 49 have herpes and 776,000 people are infected every year, though they may not know it until they get tested. If you’re feeling isolated, it’s important to understand that a diagnosis can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or number of sexual partners.
By learning more about not only how common herpes is, but effective ways to manage it, you’ll feel more at ease. One productive solution, of course, is treatment. For example, a new over-the-counter medication, FemiClear for Genital Herpes Symptoms, can help provide fast-acting, soothing relief from genital herpes outbreak symptoms. It’s available at CVS in the personal intimacy aisle (or at CVS.com, Target.com, or Amazon.com.), so finding relief from discomfort is now convenient as ever.
- Get regular STI testing.
“STI testing has become part of my self-care practice,” says Pierce. “I’ll get tested every six months to a year, even though I’m in a monogamous relationship. But before I was married, I would test every three to six months, and then I’d do something to treat myself like a manicure and pedicure. This would be part of a whole day: go out, grab lunch, get my tests done, go to TJ Maxx, whatever felt like, ‘Congratulations, you’re doing something good and proactive and you’re being responsible with your health.’”
Rather than viewing regular STI screenings as a hassle, see them as a special moment of taking back control. By regularly being aware of your status and talking to your doctor along the way, you’ll become more in tune with your body and learn ways to find relief from a possible positive diagnosis.
- Seek out treatment.
It's normal to feel less in control of your body when dealing with an STI like herpes. Remember, you can gain back some control by advocating for yourself. Seeking the best treatment for herpes is a major act of self-care. The most common form of treatment is antiviral medication, which is prescribed to lessen the frequency of outbreaks and their duration. With the help of medications, outbreaks tend to last 3-4 days versus a week or longer.
Still, any time spent dealing with burning, pain, and itching symptoms is too long, so helping yourself feel more comfortable during that time is key. When used in addition to antiviral treatment, FemiClear for Genital Herpes Symptoms has been reported to result in less severe outbreaks, reducing itching, pain and burning symptoms in over 90% of women who tried it. An in-vitro study conducted by a third-party accredited laboratory found that as a topical treatment for genital herpes, FemiClear killed over 99.9% of the herpes simplex I and II viruses. You can take it at the first sign of an outbreak and throughout the duration for outbreak symptom relief.
“Talking to your healthcare provider about what medications you can take and also utilizing [treatments] such as FemiClear to make sure that you're getting every option out there helps you feel like you're part of the process,” says Shepherd.
That’s certainly been Pierce’s experience. “I think [FemiClear] helps empower me to make choices around how I want to care for my outbreaks,” she says. “That helps to make me feel like I'm not just stuck. That I'm not being held hostage by my infection; that I have power over how my infection impacts my daily life.”
- Be open to talking about it.
Though you may be feeling shame or vulnerability post-diagnosis, Shepherd suggests opening up to trusted family, friends, and certainly always to partners. Communicating about what you’re going through can alleviate those negative feelings. It may help someone else as well. “Feeling that you have advocates in this journey [is helpful]. There are a lot more websites and people who are openly discussing [living with herpes] now,” says Shepherd.
Resources such as The STI Project and other advocacy groups make it easy for you to connect with others going through a similar experience. By sharing, you can help break the stigma and further advance how herpes is treated.
- Give yourself grace.
“Stress is a big part of how our immune system works,” says Shepherd. “When you’re stressed, inflammatory markers are released. Stress decreases the ability for the immune system to take care of the things that it needs to, and when it can't do its job, that's when the virus has the opportunity to have an outbreak and come out of hiding.”
Leading up to, and during, an outbreak, practice mindfulness and activities that will help keep your stress levels low. Be patient with yourself, understand that each day is different, and that your feelings are valid.
“Some days you just don't feel that great, and sometimes it's okay to sit on the couch, take a nap and not get as much done,” says Pierce. “Other days you want to hustle and that's also wonderful. Supporting myself in all of those stages and experiences is vital.”
Take a beat, take a breath, and hold space for yourself, as Pierce has learned to. Tuning into what your body needs and honoring that will make living with herpes much more manageable.