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How to Have a Happy Sex Life with Herpes

An estimated 1 in 6 people aged 14 to 49 currently live with genital herpes. Though it is surprisingly common, many people are unaware of their active infection or the risks associated with transmission. This virus is easily spread through direct contact, but it is also easily prevented.

People living with genital herpes can still enjoy safer sex with their partners. Read ahead to learn more about maintaining a healthy and fulfilling sex life with genital herpes.

What is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is the common term used to describe herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). The virus is common in the United States, but as many as 90 percent of those living with the virus may not realize they have it. Many people experience mild symptoms that go unrecognized, making the virus hard to detect.

Symptoms of herpes vary greatly, but may include:

  • Painful lesions or “blisters” on or surrounding the genital area
  • Painful lesions or “blisters” on or inside the mouth
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headache or painful urination

Some people experience recurring “outbreaks” of the virus, where symptoms are present and visually noticeable. Others may not experience symptoms at all. The only way to determine if someone has contracted HSV-2 is for them to get tested.

How Can Someone Get Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact. This usually takes place during sexual contact when a contagious area meets an opening in the skin or mucous membrane. The virus can shed whether or not a person has active symptoms or visible sores on the skin.

HSV-2 can be transmitted to the mouth during oral sex. This could result in future outbreaks of blisters in the mouth. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is also known as “oral herpes” and can be transmitted from the mouth to the genitals during oral sex. This makes it possible for someone to have either strain of the virus in either the mouth or on the genitals.

How Can Someone Prevent Transmission?

Person holding a wrapped condom.

A genital herpes diagnosis does not mean the end of a healthy sex life. Someone living with genital herpes can prevent transmitting the virus to their partner by practicing safer sex, being mindful of their outbreaks, and managing their infection with antiviral medications. A few simple precautions can go a long way.

Methods of preventing transmission include:

  • Get educatedBoth partners should learn about the symptoms, transmission, and prevention of herpes. Learning about and discussing herpes also reduces the stigma and anxiety surrounding the virus.
  • Know your symptoms. Even if someone has mild symptoms, they can transmit the virus to their partner. They should monitor their symptoms and refrain from sexual activity during outbreaks. This means until the sores have completely healed.
  • Use a barrier method. Because the virus can be transmitted between outbreaks, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using barrier methods between outbreaks. Using a condom or a dental dam can limit skin-to-skin contact during sex, reducing risk of transmission.
  • Disinfect sex toys. Anyone sharing sex toys with a partner should thoroughly wash them before moving to a new area of the body (e.g. mouth, genitals) or to a new person. Condoms can also be placed on sex toys and changed after use on each partner.
  • Try antiviral medication. Certain antiviral medications have been shown to reduce outbreaks and reduce transmission to sexual partners. Combining antiviral medications and barrier method use can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting HSV-2 to a sexual partner.

Can Herpes Cause Erectile Dysfunction?

Having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can increase a person’s risk for future infections or other sexual health problems. This can also include increasing a person’s risk of erectile dysfunction (ED).

A countrywide study conducted in Taiwan demonstrated a positive association between men diagnosed with HSV-1 and HSV-2 and a later diagnosis of ED. The study followed men diagnosed with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 and men without a diagnosis across four years to determine risk for developing ED. At the conclusion of the study, men with a herpes diagnosis had a significantly higher risk of developing ED within the four-year time period than men without a herpes diagnosis.

It is important for someone living with herpes to manage their condition to prevent additional sexual health complications. Anyone experiencing ED symptoms should speak with a medical provider to determine their best treatment options.

Treatment for Herpes

Bottle with pills pouring out. There is currently no cure for genital herpes. Painful blister-like outbreaks and the fear of disclosure to a partner can negatively impact a person’s sex life. Fortunately, genital herpes can be managed with at-home and medical treatment methods.

The following methods can help people to manage their symptoms:

  • Use antiviral medications. Antiviral medications, like Valtrex and its generic valacylovir, can prevent or shorten outbreaks. Daily suppressive therapy can also reduce risk of transmission to sexual partners.
  • Take over the counter pain relievers. Pain relievers like acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen can help to ease physical discomfort during outbreaks.
  • Apply cool compresses. Applying cool compresses to sores can relieve pain and itching while the blisters heal.
  • Thoroughly clean sores. Help sores to heal faster by washing with warm soap and water then patting dry. Do not bandage or pick at sores.
  • Manage stress. Stress can induce outbreaks of sores and other symptoms. Practicing stress management techniques can help to prevent stress-induced outbreaks.
  • Wear comfortable clothing. Wearing tight-fitting clothing can irritate sores and cause significant discomfort.

Those living with genital herpes should speak with a medical provider to determine the best method of treatment for their lifestyle. A combination of at-home and medical treatments is recommended for best results.

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Shelby is a public health professional with research and field experience in sexual and reproductive health. She holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).