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Carolyn Hax: When to disclose you have herpes


Dear Carolyn:

I have herpes. After a 15-year marriage I was smug in thinking I was “clean.” I found out after having Lover No. 2, realizing it wasn’t safe out there and having every test done. Thing is, I think I’ve had it all along — during my marriage — and my doctor never tested for it, and it really didn’t affect me, not even after having two kids.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I now take the pill the doctor prescribed as soon as I feel it coming on, and the outbreak goes away fast. The problem is Lover No. 2 found the prescription bottle, took pictures of it and blackmails me if I try to break up. Bad enough, I know. I’m getting rid of Lover No. 2.

My question is: Something like 70 percent of people have this; I have a very mild version that occurs infrequently and is controllable; I know when it’s coming, and I can refrain from sex until it’s gone. Do I have to tell right away? Lover No. 2 says yes, and I think you will, too, but I feel like if I have to say this at the beginning of a relationship I will probably never have sex, let alone a relationship, again. How do you say it? What if you only want a casual relationship? What if you want more and it’s a nice guy who now thinks you’re a slut?

Obviously Anonymous

Anyone who thinks you’re a “slut” for having herpes is not a nice guy. That’s the easiest point I’ll ever get to make in this column. “Clean” is for clothes, not people.

Another point from the no-agonizing-necessary list: Yes, you must disclose. You may have a mild case and also “know when it’s coming,” and about 20 percent of the population has it, but — quoting the American Social Health Association (, which also lists support resources): “There are several days throughout the year when herpes can be spread even when no symptoms are present (called asymptomatic reactivation or asymptomatic shedding).” For No. 2 to be surprised by your prescription bottle, he had to have been in the dark about your diagnosis. So wrong of you.

He reacted by charting new waters of wrong — he belongs in a crime novel, not your bed — but that doesn’t mitigate in any way your failure to do the right thing by disclosing your condition.

Now, with No. 2 presumably gone by the time this column appears, here’s what you do from now on: Date as always. Your duty to disclose kicks in after you’ve made the decision to have sex and before you have sex.

Yes, some people will leave you for it. There’s no way around it, and, yes, it will be more painful to lose someone you’ve gotten to know than someone you just met.

But your health isn’t your dates’ business until you get close enough for it to be their business. It is merely an added bonus that, once you do get to know a man, you’re likely to have formed a decent hunch about how he’ll receive your news — and just having that in mind will help you screen out the shaming type before things even get that far. Herpes is a deterrent, yes, but it also works as a screen.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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