Genital herpes: preventing the spread
Genital herpes is a viral infection mainly affecting the skin on or around your genitals, which can be caught through having sex, including oral sex, with an infected person.
Once infected with a genital herpes virus (known also as herpes simplex virus), it stays in your body forever. Some people with genital herpes have outbreaks of genital sores that keep coming back, while other people have no symptoms at all and don’t even know they have the virus in their body. So it’s possible to transmit the virus to sexual partners even if you don’t have symptoms (although this is less likely than when you have active lesions).
Mostly, you won’t know whether or not your sexual partner is infected with one of the viruses that cause genital herpes. In fact, many people don’t know themselves whether or not they are infected. So, when having sex with a new partner, it’s always best to follow these safer sex tips.
Protecting yourself and your partner
- Always use a condom during vaginal or anal sex.
- During oral sex, always use a condom to avoid direct mouth to penis contact, or a dental dam to avoid direct mouth to vagina or mouth to anus contact. A dental dam is a small sheet of latex that is held over the entrance to the vagina or anus as a protective barrier during oral sex. Keep only one side of the dam next to the genital area, remember to keep your mouth on the other side of the dam (don’t turn it over) and don’t reuse it.
If you always use a condom or a dental dam during sexual contact, you significantly reduce your risk of catching or passing on genital herpes. However, a slight risk remains because the area of infected skin may not always be covered by the condom or dental dam.
If you have genital herpes
- Avoid all sexual contact when you have an outbreak of genital herpes, that is, when you have genital sores.
- Always follow the above safe sex practices between outbreaks, as the virus can be passed on even when no sores are visible.
- Talk to your doctor about treatment options such as antiviral medicines, which can reduce the number of outbreaks and help make them less severe and of shorter duration. Antiviral medicines can be taken intermittently to treat specific outbreaks, or regularly as suppressive therapy (along with condom use during sex) to help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to a non-infected partner.
- Discuss genital herpes with your partner. Your partner might consider having a blood test for the genital herpes virus. Even if the blood test shows your partner has also been infected with a genital herpes virus, safe sex practices are still recommended, especially when sores are present.
- Avoid touching other parts of your body, especially your eyes, after touching affected areas since the herpes virus can be transferred from one part of the body to another during an outbreak. Wash your hands often during an outbreak.
Genital herpes and pregnancy
Women who are first infected with the herpes virus when they are pregnant and who have an outbreak of genital sores near the time of delivery may need to have a Caesarean section delivery rather than a vaginal delivery. Such women are at risk of spreading the herpes virus to their baby during delivery. Herpes infection in newborn babies can be very serious. Talk to your doctor if you are pregnant and have herpes.
Last Reviewed: 06 January 2010
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