All I could think was, “it’s all-wrong,” as I stared into the television. While trapped inside during Winter Storm Jonas, I spent a significant amount of time watching the local news. Amidst the same weather forecasts and school closures, I noticed something seemingly unrelated to the blizzard: a commercial for Abreva, a treatment for cold sores. I sat in awe of the probability that the viewing audience likely would not identify this as herpes-related.
Despite a background enriched with sexual health education, I never really considered cold sores to be synonymous with herpes until I was diagnosed with HSV-2. Personally, I test negative for HSV-1, but I know plenty of people who get cold sores on occasion. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 carry HSV-1 (67%), AKA a strain of herpes. 'Cold sore' provides a buffer, a level of innocence. It helps fulfill society’s need to conceal the 'dirty nature' of the herpes virus. These terms are interchangeable, yet we choose to keep distance between them. After scanning the Abreva website, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a section about herpes, but its portrayal is still problematic--the commercial fails to even mention the word 'herpes'. Herpes is only visible to those who choose to further their research on Abreva's website. Even if this step is taken, the stigma will most likely prevent people from accepting that they are carriers of the virus. How would society’s perception change if we begin to replace 'cold sore' with 'herpes' in these public broadcasts?
Over the last several years, there has been an increase in oral-to-genital transmission of the virus. Yes, your cold sore can spread to your partner’s genitals, potentially causing a genital HSV-1 infection. While HSV-1 typically prefers the mouth as its home, it sometimes decides that the South holds a better stake in real estate. When we are in the heat of the moment, we touch, we kiss. A lot. Everywhere. How many of those with HSV-1 feel a need to disclose to their partners before going down on them? Even more importantly, how many people even know what a cold sore really is? Or that they test positive for HSV-1? How many people know the risks?
The reality is that somewhere along the line, we all have probably been exposed to some strain of the herpes virus. My goal in highlighting this is not to instill fear, but to reach a level of awareness. I believe that one potential way to remove the dirtiness of herpes is for those who have experienced a cold sore to discuss it. Start the conversation with yourself by replacing 'cold sore' with 'herpes' just to see how it feels. A word should not make anyone feel inferior, but words are powerful, and so are the stigmas attached to them. Did you feel like less of a person when you told yourself you had a cold sore? Probably not. When attaching the herpes label to oneself, one's self-perception may change. Although it is easier to discuss sexuality in this time, our language reveals that we still have a long road ahead of us. Perhaps approaching the herpes stigma from an oral point of view will better the chances of a more inclusive HSV future.