How to Prevent Herpes

Two Parts:Understanding the ProblemProtecting Against Transmission

Herpes is an infection caused by two virus types, and it appears in two forms, as either oral or genital herpes. Many prevention tips are valuable for both oral and genital herpes, but the latter will be the primary focus of this article. By recognizing and treating symptoms, protecting yourself properly during sexual activity, and being honest and open with your partner(s), you can do a great deal towards preventing the spread of herpes either to or from yourself.

Part 1
Understanding the Problem

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    Get the facts. As mentioned, there are two types of herpes simplex virus, known as HSV-1 and HSV-2. Generally speaking, HSV-1 is the cause of oral herpes (roughly 80% of the time), and HSV-2 causes genital herpes (also about 80%).[1]
    • HSV-1 and HSV-2 are both spread by the transmission of infected fluids through skin-to-skin contact. You can get herpes when blisters are present and when sores are not present.[2]
    • Genital herpes is considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD) because fluid exchange during vaginal, anal, or oral sex is the primary mode of transmission. Oral herpes most commonly spreads through kissing, or sharing utensils or drinkware.
    • It is estimated that one-in-six Americans age 14-49 have genital herpes.[3]
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    Learn to recognize the signs. The most common sign of a genital herpes infection is a cluster of reddish sores in or near the genital area. These sores or lesions eventually blister, break (sometimes resulting in oozing), and scab over before disappearing.[4]
    • Oral herpes lesions, which typically form around or in the mouth, are often called “cold sores.” These are not the same as canker sores, which only form inside the mouth and are not caused by HSV.[5]
    • After the initial outbreak, which usually occurs within several days of infection, the symptoms will disappear and recur, often with decreasing frequency and intensity. Flu-like symptoms can also accompany the lesions, especially during the initial outbreak.
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    Expect it to hang around for a lifetime. There is no current cure for herpes, and the virus often remains within an infected body for life. It can remain dormant for months or years and then recur without warning.[6] Outbreaks may be triggered by stress, fever, sunlight, or trauma, among other causes.
    • Some people with herpes never display any symptoms, while many experience only mild, infrequent symptoms.
    • Herpes should not be brushed aside as insignificant, however. Pregnant women with genital herpes, for example, run a greater risk of miscarriage and can spread neonatal herpes, which can occasionally prove deadly, to their unborn children.
    • Pregnant women who have herpes may need to take an antiviral medication during pregnancy to prevent transmission. If you have a herpes outbreak during labor, then a cesarean section would be performed to prevent transmission to the baby.[7]
    • Additionally, herpes skin lesions break and bleed more easily than healthy skin, making the spread of HIV during sexual activity more likely.

Part 2
Protecting Against Transmission

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    Be selective. As with any STD, abstaining from sexual activity is the most effective way to prevent genital herpes. Barring that, limiting your number of sexual partners reduces the likelihood of transmission.[8]
    • You can consider a reduced risk of contracting an STD as one benefit of engaging in long-term, monogamous sexual relationships.
    • Of course, honesty within the monogamous relationship, and taking protective measures as needed, are important in preventing the transmission of herpes as well.
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    Be honest. Not surprisingly, most people are not eager to discuss herpes with prospective or new sexual partners. Getting past the stigmas and fears, however, and engaging in an honest discussion about STDs, is essential to protecting against transmission either to or from you.
    • If you know you have herpes, consider it your responsibility to inform your partners, even if this means engaging in an awkward conversation. Likewise, take it upon yourself to ask your partners if they have or may have herpes.
    • If you are concerned that you may have herpes, talk to your doctor about taking a simple blood test that can confirm or refute your suspicion.[9]
    • Genital herpes can spread even when symptoms are not present, so it is best to err on the side of caution. If it is even remotely possible that you or your partner has herpes, assume it to be so and take protective measures.[10]
    • In fact, the protective measures recommended for preventing herpes transmission are good habits under all circumstances.
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    Steer clear during breakouts. Herpes is most likely to be transmitted when an infected person is symptomatic with the tell-tale blisters. It is therefore imperative to avoid sexual activity during these flare-ups of the infection.[11]
    • The same principle holds true for avoiding kissing and sharing of utensils, drinkware, etc., during breakouts of oral herpes. For more information specific to dealing with oral herpes, click over to How to Live with Herpes.
    • During breakouts in particular, any skin-to-skin contact in the “risk area” carries an increased risk of transmission, as any miniscule crack or opening in the skin is enough of an open door for the virus to enter. For genital herpes, the risk area corresponds to the area of the body covered by a pair of boxer shorts.[12]
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    Use protection every time. As with any STD, using a condom properly every time is essential to reducing the likelihood of transmitting herpes during sexual activity. Only condoms made of latex or polyurethane, and properly employed, are effective at preventing transmission of herpes or other STDs.[13]
    • If you or your partner has or may have herpes, you should use a condom every time, regardless of whether one of you is symptomatic at the time. Remember, herpes can still be transmitted even without symptoms.[14]
    • From opening the package to disposing of the used condom, proper technique and care to ensure proper coverage and avoid breakage or leakage is the key to preventing transmission. Consult How to Use a Condom for detailed instructions.
    • To prevent the spread of herpes during oral sex, males should wear condoms and females should employ "dental dams," which are essentially rectangular sheets of latex. These can be purchased as-is, or made by cutting open a male condom or even a latex glove.[15]
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    Clean objects used during sex thoroughly. Never attempt to reuse a condom, obviously, but also take care to clean and protect any sex toys, such as vibrators, you use or share.[16]
    • Clean items carefully and thoroughly with soap and warm water after every use, and especially before sharing them.
    • Cover items with condoms or similar forms of protection.
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    Combat the symptoms. Even though there is no cure for herpes, there are treatments available that can moderate or shorten breakouts, when transmission is more likely.
    • Several antiviral medications are available to combat genital herpes. Talk to your doctor about which is right for you and when to take it. You may be advised to take the medication consistently, or only during breakouts. Remember, however, that none of these medications can cure herpes.[17]
    • For more information on common herpes treatments, see How to Treat Herpes.
    • A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that, in cases where one partner had genital herpes, the transmission rate was reduced from 4% to 0.4% with the combination of: 1) abstaining from sex when symptomatic; 2) using a condom every time; and 3) taking the antiviral Valtrex daily.[18]
    • Therefore, with proper precautions taken, the transmission of genital herpes from an infected partner to a non-infected one can most often be prevented. The keys, as always when dealing with herpes, are honesty, abstinence during symptoms, and proper protection.


  • Genital herpes very often causes psychological distress in people who know they are infected, regardless of severity of symptoms. Speak to your health care provider if you are infected and are having difficulty coping with the condition.
  • There is antiviral medicine to shorten the duration of an outbreak, but you are still at risk of transmitting the disease.
  • If you are diagnosed, disclose your diagnosis to past and potential sexual contacts.
  • There are many online dating sites and support groups for people with herpes.
  • While genital herpes can be spread in several different ways, it cannot be spread through swimming pools, toilet seats, doorknobs, etc. The virus cannot survive long outside the human body.[19]


  • Herpes virus can lead to death.
    • Newborns and immunocompromised are most at risk.
    • Encephalitis is a serious brain infection that can be a result of herpes.
  • Herpes can make HIV-infected individuals more infectious, and can make people more susceptible to HIV infection.
  • A person may be asymptomatic, but still contagious.
    • Some people with HSV-2 infection never have sores, or they have very mild symptoms that go unrecognized.
    • If an infected person does not have any symptoms, he or she can still infect his or her sex partner(s).
  • Women, take note of the following:
    • Transmission from male to female is more common than from female to male, therefore genital herpes is more common in women.
    • Symptoms and complications can be more severe in women than in men.
    • Menstrual cycles can trigger outbreaks.
    • It is important that women avoid contracting herpes during pregnancy. A newly acquired infection during late pregnancy poses a greater risk of transmission to the baby. Genital HSV can lead to potentially fatal infections in babies.

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Categories: Sexually Transmitted Diseases