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Herpes & Cold Sores

How to Have Sex with Herpes

By Kathleen Morrison
Even if you’re been diagnosed with herpes, your sex life isn’t over! Knowledge is power. There are lots of things you can do to protect yourself and your partners while continuing to have a happy and fulfilling sex life. 

Can I have sex with Herpes?

You can absolutely have sex if you have been diagnosed with herpes. Herpes is not a sentence of celibacy — millions of people continue to lead safe, full sex lives after being diagnosed. There are two main things you can do to reduce the chances of getting herpes from an infected partner, and to reduce the chances of transmitting herpes to a partner:
  1. Manage the symptoms of outbreaks with medication. Prescription antiviral medication for someone who has the herpes virus can greatly reduce the odds of transmission by reducing the amount of virus in the body and can definitely be a way to protect an HSV-negative partner from contracting the virus.
  2. Use barrier methods like condoms and dental dams to avoid herpes transmission during sex. Make sure you have open and honest communication with any current and future partners so everyone is educated and making the decisions that are right for their health.

How to prevent Herpes

Genital herpes is spread from sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. One common misconception is that the herpes virus can be transmitted from sharing utensils or drinks with someone who has it. In reality, the best way to avoid herpes is to avoid direct contact with another person’s mouth or genitals.
You may be thinking that some of the most fun activities involve another person’s mouth or genitals! We agree. Most people have sex at some point in their lives, so being educated about your risks so you can have safer sex is important. Using barrier methods of protection, like condoms and dental dams, when you have sex with herpes helps to lower your risk of getting an STI, including herpes. Herpes can live on areas of your body that aren’t protected by condoms (like the scrotum, butt cheeks, upper thighs, and labia), so these methods aren’t a 100% guarantee against herpes, but they do help a lot to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.

Can I pass Herpes from oral sex? 

In most cases, genital herpes is passed along through anal or vaginal intercourse, but you can also get it when you're dating someone with HSV-2 from performing oral on your partner if they have genital herpes, even if they aren't currently having an outbreak. It’s also possible to transmit HSV-1 (the virus that often causes cold sores) to your partner’s genitals via oral sex. The mouth, vagina, and urethra are all lined with mucous membranes that enable the herpes virus to jump a bit easier from one person to another.
If you are in a relationship where one partner has HSV-2 and the other does not, taking suppressive antiviral medication can greatly reduce the likelihood of outbreaks and transmission. Another way to reduce the risk that your partner will contract the virus is by using a dental dam as a barrier during oral sex. A dental dam is a thin piece of latex or polyurethane that you stretch over your genitalia during oral sex. The materials used for a dental dam are the same ones used for condoms, so they are thin enough not to detract from the sexual experience. In fact, you can even DIY a dental dam using a condom.

How can I make sure I don’t give anyone Herpes?

Both partners have their own roles to play when it comes to preventing herpes transmission. Beyond managing symptoms with medication and continuing to use barrier methods with partners, there are a few more things you should be mindful of when considering herpes transmission:
  • Don’t have sex with anyone during a herpes outbreak, because that’s when the virus spreads most easily. But herpes can also spread when there are no sores or symptoms, so it’s important to use condoms and dental dams, even if everything looks and feels healthy. When the skin heals completely and your scabs fall off, you’re good to start having sex again.
  • Learn how to tell when an outbreak is coming, and stop having sex right when you notice these signs. You may feel a burning, itching, or tingling feeling that lets you know you’re about to get sores.
  • If you have a cold sore on your mouth, don't kiss anyone — especially babies, children, or pregnant women.
  • Always tell your sexual partners that you have herpes before you have sex, so you can work together to prevent it from spreading and build a foundation of trust. Telling someone you have an STD can be hard, but herpes is super common and doesn’t lead to serious health problems.
You can also reach out on social media for community (and give @hellowisp a follow while you’re at it)! Lots of herpes activists are taking steps to #BreakTheStigma by talking about their diagnoses, their experiences, and how they navigate difficult conversations with their partners. One thing they aren’t doing? Giving up on their sex lives! Having herpes doesn’t mean living a life of celibacy—you’re still a complete person who’s allowed to live a full life. You’ve got this.

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