Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions

Anonymous on November 2, 2011

How do you get genital herpes?

I’m close to having sex with my new boyfriend…but I want to make sure I’m informed. So, how do you get genital herpes? Do condoms help?

answered by Lisa Oldson, MD on November 2, 2011

It’s great that you’re taking the initiative to learn about herpes risks and safer sex before you start a new sexual relationship. That’s a very responsible move, and I’m happy to offer you some information about genital herpes transmission.

How do you get genital herpes? For starters, genital herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a herpes infection. Specifically, the virus is most often transmitted through sexual contact, which is why it’s referred to as a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

For example, genital herpes can be spread through:

  • Genital-to-genital contact. If your partner has a genital herpes infection and you rub genitals, participate in dry-humping or other similar contact without protection, it’s possible to spread the virus.
  • Oral sex. Although most genital herpes infections are caused by HSV-2 (a strain of the herpes virus), it’s also possible to get a genital herpes infection caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is usually found on or around the mouth, and commonly causes cold sores. So as you begin sexual activity, keep in mind that it’s possible to pass a herpes infection from the mouth to the genitals if you’re not using protection (like a dental dam or condom).
  • Vaginal and anal sex. As with most STDs, unprotected vaginal and anal sex with an infected partner are also risk factors for genital herpes.

Does a sexual partner have to show visible signs of herpes to spread the virus? In a word, no. It’s possible for the virus to spread through “viral shedding” even when no signs of infection are present. And because the majority of people don’t know they’re infected with herpes, it’s very easy to spread the virus unknowingly.

So it’s definitely a good idea to use condoms and dental dams during any sexual activity with your new boyfriend...especially if one or neither of you has been tested for HSV-1, HSV-2 and other common STDs.

How can you find out if you or your partner has herpes? Testing is the only way to know for sure if you or a partner is infected with herpes or perhaps another STD. To learn more about herpes and herpes testing, you might want to turn to our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.

Thanks for your question, and I wish you good luck and good health in your new relationship.

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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