Medically reviewed by Leah Millheiser, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/12/2020
There are some things in life that are out of your control. You may be the most careful woman on the planet — you take your vitamins daily, you wash your hands frequently, you pay your taxes on time, you swipe judiciously and conservatively on dating apps — but bad things can still happen.
You may still catch a cold, still have a terrible first date, still get audited for no reason… These things just happen sometimes.
And no matter how responsible or how careful you are, you may still catch an STI like genital herpes.
Short of complete sexual abstinence, there’s no way to guarantee prevention against genital herpes. It’s a bummer, but it’s the truth. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t precautions you can take to ensure your risk is low as possible.
First things first, though — you have to fully understand your risks to have any impact on them.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection. It’s most frequently caused by the herpes simplex virus HSV-2. While HSV-1 is also herpes, it’s known as the primary cause of oral herpes and causes cold sores inside of or around the mouth. HSV-2, on the other hand, causes lesions or sores in the genital region. Having said that, in some cases HSV-1 can be the cause of genital herpes, while HSV-2 can be the cause of oral herpes.
Genital herpes is spread through sexual activity — such as vaginal, anal or oral sex — with an infected person. Occasionally, HSV-1 can be spread to the genital region too, through oral sex — and likewise, HSV-2 can sometimes be spread to the mouth and other areas of the body.
Herpes is incurable. Once infected, you’ll carry this virus for life, and symptoms may come and go. During an outbreak, women with genital herpes often experience several symptoms, including pain and itching in the affected area, unsightly sores or blisters, ulcers after the blisters rupture and scabbing.
The frequency of outbreaks depends on several factors including type of HSV infection (HSV-1 causes less frequent and severe genital herpes outbreaks than HSV-2), immune status of the person infected and stress levels to name a few. Some people may only have one outbreak during their lifetime while others may have several recurrences a year.
Both genital and oral herpes are more common in women than men. Nearly 12 percent of people aged 14 to 49 in the United States had genital herpes in 2015-2016, according to the CDC. Women in that age range were infected at a rate of about 16 percent, compared to just eight percent of men.
Around the world, an estimated 417 million people — including 267 million women and 150 million men — live with genital herpes, according to data from the World Health Organization. The virus is most common in Africa, and lowest in the Americas.
Women who are not infected with the herpes virus can prevent infection by abstaining from sexual activity with a partner who has a current infection. And by sexual “activity,” we mean any sexual touching — you don’t have to have intercourse to contract genital herpes. Using safe sex practices at all times (i.e., wearing either a latex or polyurethane condom) even when a partner is not showing signs of an infection is crucial.
However, even with these practices of abstinence during a herpes outbreak and proper use of condoms at all times, the virus can still potentially be spread through asymptomatic viral shedding. This is when the virus is present on the genitals in the absence of any symptoms.
Knowing whether someone has genital herpes isn’t as simple as you might think — people living with genital herpes may not be symptomatic and they may not even know they’re infected.
HSV-2 is most contagious when sores are visible and open, so having open and honest communication and being aware of any physical changes in your partner’s genitals is a good first step in prevention. However, you can still contract genital herpes from someone who has no visible signs of infection.
Also, being with someone who knows their sexual history and health status is crucial, whether you’re looking to prevent genital herpes or any other sexually transmitted disease.
Finally, though latex or polyurethane condoms can help prevent infection, they do not cover the entire genital region and are therefore not completely effective at preventing genital herpes transmission.
If you or your partner have genital herpes, you put one another at risk of infection. There are things you can do to lessen the risks of sharing HSV-2:
Don’t engage in sexual activity when you’re/they're having any symptoms of an outbreak.
Recognize the signs that an outbreak is looming and cease sexual activity until the outbreak has passed and all genital lesions have healed.
Use a latex or polyurethane condom when having sex outside of outbreak periods — while this isn’t foolproof, it can lessen your risk.
Talk with your doctor about using suppressive antiviral medications to lower your risk of transmitting genital herpes to an uninfected sexual partner.
During an outbreak, avoid touching your sores and wash your hands frequently.
Because genital herpes is incurable, treatments are designed to address the symptoms of an outbreak. Antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax®) and valacyclovir (Valtrex®) may work to heal sores more quickly and lessen the severity of symptoms.
When taken daily, rather than just during outbreaks, antiviral medications may reduce the risk of spreading genital herpes and can reduce the frequency of outbreaks.
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