Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions

Anonymous on September 13, 2011

Could I pass genital warts or genital herpes on to a new partner if I don’t have any symptoms?

I was in a five-year relationship with a man who had been treated for genital warts before I met him. He also had a herpes outbreak that started on his back and later showed up on his genitals. I only used the pill for birth control while we were together. We never had sex when he had a herpes outbreak, and I don’t have any symptoms of herpes or warts, but I’m wondering if I could transmit either disease in new relationships.

answered by
Lisa Oldson, MD on September 13, 2011

First, I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for the health of your future partner(s)…as well as yourself. I will do my best to address your concerns about herpes and genital warts.
 
To begin, yes, you could be infected and not know it. It is possible to catch the virus that causes genital warts (human papillomavirus or HPV) and the viruses that cause herpes (herpes simplex viruses 1 & 2, or HSV-1 & HSV-2) from unprotected sex with an infected partner. Both can be spread through skin-to-skin contact...even when no signs of the disease are present. In fact, you may have one of these viruses and not know it ⎼ STDs don’t always show symptoms right away, or ever. 
 
The only way to know for sure if you have an STD, and could potentially infect a new partner, is to get tested. 
 
Regarding genital warts...even after your boyfriend’s genital warts were treated and no longer visible, it’s still possible that you caught HPV...especially if you didn’t use protection during sexual activity. And that makes it possible you could infect a new partner as well. You can learn more about HPV risks and prevention in our HPV Overview.
 
You can get tested for HPV at your gynecologist’s office ⎼ testing for HPV typically requires an exam and a Pap test that can’t be done at a standard STD testing facility. The exam is a visual inspection to look for genital warts and the Pap test detects changes on the cervix that can be caused by other types of HPV.
 
You can get tested for herpes with a simple blood test at your doctor’s office or STD testing service. Rest assured, if you do have herpes, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of six people between the ages of 14 and 49 has the type of herpes that causes most genital herpes (HSV-2). But many who have herpes have no symptoms...
 
How can you protect future partners? Having herpes or another STD won’t prevent you from enjoying a healthy sex life. In fact, there are now antiviral medications (Acyclovir, Famciclovir and Valacyclovir) that can help prevent the spread of herpes. A breakthrough study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that taking Valacyclovir once a day “significantly reduces the risk of transmission of genital herpes.” Other STDs, too, can be effectively treated to ensure your optimal health for as long as possible.
 
Of course, using condoms or dental dams during oral, vaginal or anal sex can also greatly reduce the risk of passing an STD to a new partner. 
 
I also encourage you to get tested for other common STDs. Again, many STDs don’t show any obvious signs or symptoms for a long time. So the only way to know your STD status for sure is to get tested for common STDs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, hepatitis, HIV and syphilis. Getting tested will put your mind at ease, and – if you do test positive for an STD – you can get treatment to cure or lessen the potentially dangerous long-term effects of an untreated STD. You can also minimize the risk of spreading an infection to others.
 
I encourage you to check out our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2 for more information about herpes risk factors, treatment and prevention. And it also might be helpful to you to browse our Expert Guide to STD Basics.
 
Related info:
 

Lisa Oldson, MD

Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.

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