How can genital herpes be prevented?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Genital herpes develops as a result of the herpes simplex virus type 2. Since the virus is contagious, you should take steps to prevent infection. Avoid sexual contact with anyone who has genital herpes if possible, and do not have sex with anyone who has the disease during an outbreak. Using condoms during sex can also help prevent the spread of the infection. If you already have the virus, be aware of things that can bring on an outbreak, like stress.

Until a vaccine is developed or research proves that antiviral drugs can stop transmission of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), the only effective means of preventing genital herpes is abstinence or consistent and correct condom use. This is because any type of unprotected vaginal, anal or oral-genital sex can transmit the virus.

However, even condoms are not risk-free because lesions can occur outside of the area protected by condoms. The virus cannot penetrate through latex barriers. However, it is possible, although rare, to acquire infection during skin-to-skin contact if a lesion is present and not covered by a condom.

The risk of transmission is greatest when an outbreak occurs. As a rule, experts say it is best to abstain from sex when symptoms are present and to use condoms between outbreaks. Since oral herpes can be passed to the genitals from oral contact, it is prudent to abstain from oral sex if a cold sore is present.

Couples in long-term monogamous relationships in which one partner is infected must weigh the risk of infection against the inconvenience of always having protected sex. Most infections take place fairly early in a relationship and research indicates that a person may become less infectious over time.

Women can use dental dams or plastic wrap to cover the vulva and help protect their partners from contact with body fluids during oral sex. The only dental dams approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for oral sex are Sheer Glyde dams. Because transmission can occur even when no lesions are present, always place a latex barrier between you and your partner's genitals and anus. Again, couples should abstain from sex during outbreaks, until the skin is fully healed.

Lesbians or bisexual women should be aware that the herpes virus can be transmitted when a lesion from one woman comes into contact with the oral mucosa or the genital mucosa of her female partner.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.