Safe Sex With Herpes
Most Frequently Asked Questions
- What is genital herpes?
- How did I catch genital herpes?
- How will genital herpes affect my relationships?
- What are the symptoms?
- Do the symptoms return?
- What can my partner and I do to reduce the risk of transmission?
- Is there a cure?
- Can I catch this virus from toilets and bath towels?
- How do I know if I have genital herpes?
- Where can I get more information and advice?
Genital herpes is a common infection generally transmitted through sexual contact. It is caused by one of two members of the herpes virus family, which also includes the viruses causing chickenpox, shingles, and glandular fever.
Genital herpes is usually caused by infection with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Genital herpes can also be caused by HSV-1, the virus which more usually causes facial herpes, including cold sores on the lips.
Genital herpes, for most people, is an occasionally recurrent, sometimes painful condition for which effective treatment is available. Generally, it is not life-threatening and has no long-term repercussions on one’s general physical health.
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of catching genital herpes, regardless of their gender, race or social class.
Genital herpes can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected blister or sore, usually through sexual contact. It can also be transmitted when there are no symptoms present.
HSV-2 infection is usually passed on during vaginal or anal sex. HSV-1 is usually transmitted to the genital area by oral sex (mouth to genital contact).
If you have only just been diagnosed as having genital herpes and are in a monogamous relationship, this does not necessarily mean that your partner has been unfaithful to you, or sexually promiscuous in the past.
It is possible for a person to carry the virus without knowing that they have it, since up to 80% of people who are infected with HSV-2 show no signs of the infection. So it is very easy for a person to unwittingly transmit the infection to their partner.
The symptoms of the infection vary greatly between individuals. It might be totally unnoticeable in one person, but cause severe blistering in their partner.
Since the genital herpes virus can be transmitted through oral sex as well as vaginal sex, it is also possible to have caught the virus from a cold sore on your partner’s mouth or face. It is possible to pass the virus on even if they did not have a cold sore present at the time of contact.
Alternatively, you may have contracted the virus from a previous sexual partner, perhaps even several years ago. The virus can remain inactive in the body for long periods, so this may be the first time it has caused symptoms. Or, previous symptoms may have been so slight that the herpes condition went unnoticed or was dismissed (e.g.. a mild rash, itching or tingling).
Because of the stigma wrongly attached to genital herpes, it can sometimes take a great deal of courage to tell your partner that you have the infection. If you have not already told your partner and need advice on how to do this please read our Herpes Talk section.
You may find that the honesty and trust brought about by discussing genital herpes strengthens your relationship and brings you closer together. Support and understanding can help to overcome much of the anxiety that you may be feeling about genital herpes.
A good long-term relationship must be based always on honesty and trust. While some people may experience an unsupportive response, most have found their partners are both supportive and understanding.
If you are having your first episode of genital herpes, you are likely to feel generally unwell and have fever, headache, and general joint and muscle aches, as well as irritation in the genitals.
This may last for several days, during or after which reddened areas may appear on the genitals. These may develop into painful blisters, which then burst, leaving sores which gradually heal, usually without scarring.
The severity of this first episode varies between individuals, but for some people it may be severe and last for up to three weeks if not treated. These symptoms should quickly resolve with treatment.
The symptoms of genital herpes may reappear from time to time. This is because once the viral infection is acquired, it stays permanently in the body. Most of the time the virus remains inactive, but every so often it may reactivate and cause another outbreak.
Each individual is different – some people never have a recurrence. Others may have recurrences several times a year. However, recurrent outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe than the first episode.
Certain events or situations can trigger recurrences, and you may be able to avoid or reduce the trigger factors, which may include stress at work or home, fatigue, ill health, loss of sleep, friction due to sexual intercourse, and menstruation in women.
If you have frequent or severe episodes of genital herpes, or if the recurrent outbreaks are causing a lot of anxiety for you, then you may benefit from taking oral antiviral medication, medicinal herbs, nutrients or a clinically tested ointment that can help to improve the symptoms.
If you take the necessary precautions, the chance of transmitting the virus to your partner is small. Genital herpes does not have to mean complete abstinence from sex or a reduced enjoyment of sex.
The risk of transmitting the virus can often be reduced (sometimes by half) by using condoms. The continued use of condoms in a long-term relationship is a personal decision that only you as a couple can make. Most people find that as the importance of the HSV infection in their relationship is seen in perspective, that condom use can become less relevant if this is the only reason condoms are being used.
However, at all costs couples should try to avoid sexual intercourse during an active episode of herpes, because this is when the virus is most likely to be transmitted. This period includes the time from when your partner first has warning signs of an outbreak, such as tingling or burning in the genitals, until the last of the sores has healed. Also, sexual activity prolongs the healing of the episode.
Transmission risk is increased if there are any breaks in the skin, for example, if you have thrush or small abrasions from sexual intercourse, often due to insufficient lubrication. It can be helpful to use a lubricant specifically for sexual intercourse and avoid sex if you have thrush. Sexual lubrication is helpful right at the start of sexual activity.
You will find more information about thrush and candida in the Female Herpes Issues section.
Sores in other areas, such as the buttocks and thighs, can be just as contagious as those in the genital area, and care should be taken to avoid direct contact with such sores during sex.
At other times, there is still a small risk of transmitting the infection, even if your partner is showing no signs of genital herpes. You can read detailed information about this in the Herpes Viral Shedding section. If you or your partner has a cold sore, it is advisable to avoid oral sex as this can spread the virus to the genitals.
You cannot catch genital herpes by sharing cups, towels or bath water, or from toilet seats. Even during an outbreak, it is only skin to skin contact with the parts of your partner’s body which have the sores which you need to avoid. You can still cuddle, share a bed, or kiss.
This is a personal choice. Some people prefer not to take prescription drugs due to the potential for side-effects and the expense, especially if they are not necessary. More and more people are focusing on correcting the problems which can trigger an outbreak, such as a vulnerable immune system or an inappropriate diet. There are also particular herbs, nutrients and ointments which can be helpful.
You can read about different options available in the Herpes Treatment section.
For many people with genital herpes, the physical consequences of the infection are far outweighed by the emotional feelings it sometimes brings with it. There are many misconceptions about genital herpes, including the belief that it is associated with promiscuity, and these have given it a reputation which may cause you to feel angry and shocked by the diagnosis. You may feel betrayed by your partner, or by a previous partner who may have transmitted the infection.
Anxiety, guilt, loss of assertiveness and fear of rejection are also common emotions. The support of a partner, friend, or family member can be very important in helping you to deal with these feelings and to minimize the effect of genital herpes on your life.
If you are feeling lost or need a little bit of guidance and support please read our Positive Thinking section.
Although the herpes virus is relatively easy to kill in a laboratory dish the problem arises because this virus hides itself inside an apparently normal host nerve cell until it has multiplied itself and is ready to migrate. This is when an outbreak occurs and the blisters appear.
Total cure is not out of the question and has been observed many times by patients and physicians. The sooner a treatment can begin after infection the greater the chance of overcoming the virus, so whatever treatment you decide on begin it soon and stick to it for a time. Besides the various treatments examined in the Herpes Treatment section, close attention to diet and boosting the immune system is recommended.
It is considered by the CDC and all health care organizations that the spreading of genital herpes through inanimate objects, such as soap, towels, clothing, bed sheets, toilet seats, and spa surfaces is highly unlikely because the herpes virus cannot live very long outside of the body.
In theory this virus will die very quickly once the temperature drops or the moisture around the virus dries up, but a scenario can be suggested where the temperature and moisture holds on long enough for the virus to survive outside the body for several minutes.
This could arise where an infected person leaves the virus in droplets of warm urine on the toilet seat and someone uses that toilet seat within a few minutes and has a cut that comes in contact with that pool of warm urine. To avoid this scenario wipe the toilet seat before using.
The usual symptoms of genital herpes begin with feeling generally unwell. You may have fever, headache, and general joint and muscle aches, as well as irritation in the genitals. This may last for several days, during or after which reddened areas may appear on the genitals. These may develop into painful blisters, which then burst, leaving sores which gradually heal, usually without scarring.
Signs of infection vary greatly between individuals and it is possible for you to show only mild symptoms that are not so easily recognizable as being genital herpes. These may include itching in the genital area, small cracks in the skin around the genitals, or reddened patches of skin in the genital area, thighs or buttocks, or you may have no symptoms at all.
Consult your doctor if you think you might be showing signs of the infection. Until recently, diagnosis could only be made by clinical symptoms and swabs to detect the virus during an active episode. However, blood tests are becoming commercially available that can distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies.
The time taken to develop antibodies after initial infection is normally 8 to 12 weeks. It is also important to know that false positives and false negatives can occur with these tests.
Blood tests cannot definitively diagnose herpes, they can tell you whether or not you are infected with HSV-1 and / or HSV-2, but cannot identify the site of infection. A swab taken from a genital site test is also required. If this tests positive, that is, the virus is detected, the diagnosis of genital herpes is confirmed. For more information visit the Herpes Diagnosis section.
After you have read this information, you might have specific questions or concerns. Your doctor should be able to answer such questions or recommend other experts who can provide advice and support. Continue to go back to your doctor until all your queries about genital herpes are answered.
In some areas, there are local genital herpes support groups that can be a valuable source of information and support. Ask your doctor if there is such a group in your area or look through our list of Support Groups.
Where to Now?
- What are Cold Sores?
- Preventing the Spread of HSV
- What NOT to eat to prevent outbreaks
- Building Self-Esteem
Ask questions and get support right now in the Herpes Support Forum