Can I pass genital herpes to a partner when I don’t have an outbreak?
Once someone is diagnosed with genital herpes, does he always have to wear a condom during sex...even when there are no visible herpes signs?
Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP on August 25, 2011
I’m glad that you asked this question, because it’s a confusing topic for a lot of people.
The short answer is yes...if you have genital herpes, using a condom during any sexual activity helps protect your partner from infection, and that’s true even when there are no active signs of the virus.
Why? Because when you aren’t showing herpes signs or symptoms, you can still spread the virus...wearing condoms helps reduce that risk by 30-50%.
Also, taking antiviral therapy daily (Acyclovir, Valacyclovir or Famciclovir) reduces the risk of herpes transmission by about 50%...so that's another great way to reduce the risk of spreading herpes. In fact, antiviral therapy combined with safer sex practices reduces the risk of herpes transmission to less than 5% in a year for a heterosexual couple in which the male is infected and the female isn’t (and the risk is even lower when the woman is the herpes carrier).
When herpes symptoms are present (e.g., open herpes sores from an outbreak), I would advise against oral, vaginal or anal sex altogether as the virus is most contagious during that time.
As always, I encourage you to get tested for all common STDs and have your partner do the same...that way, you can both protect your sexual health by being informed and proactive if there are any problems.
Finally, I also encourage you to talk about your herpes with your sexual partner(s)...another important way to lower the chances of infecting a partner is to be open with them about your condition. You can learn more about herpes and how to reduce the risk of transmission in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.
Thanks again for your important question.
Warren is a Nurse Practitioner and owner of Westover Heights Clinic in Oregon. She is a renown expert and author in the field of genital herpes research, diagnosis and treatment. Warren was educated at Oregon Health and Sciences University and the University of Portland.