Anonymous on September 15, 2011

How can I protect myself from catching genital herpes from my girlfriend?

I met a girl online who just found out she has herpes. I think she’s a very sweet person. Is it possible to lead a normal life with her? How do we have sex without spreading the disease? Will I get herpes from her if we take all the precautions? 

answered by Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP on September 15, 2011

Thanks for your thoughtful questions. I’ll do my best to put your mind at ease.

First, the good news...

Yes, you can you enjoy a healthy, normal sex life with a someone who has herpes. For your safety, it’s best to take a few precautions before you have sex and also during sex to reduce your risk of catching herpes. 

First, I encourage you to get a type-specific herpes antibody test. This test will be able tell you if you have herpes and what type (HSV-1 or HSV-2) you have. Since around 80-90% of those infected with herpes don't know it, there is a chance that you’re already infected with the virus without being aware of it. If your partner knows what type of herpes she has, that’s great. If not, I would suggest antibody testing for her, as well. 

There are a few different ways to help make sex safer for you. Once you’ve both been tested, you’ll know if you’re infected with the same virus type as your partner. If you're both infected with the same type (HSV-1 or HSV-2), then you’re home free and the two of you don't need to worry about herpes transmission. In other words, you can’t get re-infected with a virus that you already have...that said, it’s still a good idea to use condoms to reduce the risk of other STDs.

HSV-2 is the most common cause of recurrent genital herpes (the type that keeps coming back). What should you do if your partner has genital herpes caused by HSV-2 and you don’t? Well, if she takes daily antiviral therapy, if you both avoid intercourse when symptoms are present for her, and if you use condoms regularly, the risk of you getting herpes from her is less than 2% in a year ⎼ that’s according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. If your partner has genital herpes caused by HSV-1, you should still follow the same precautions...but your risk is even lower.

(By the way, a 2% risk means that ⎼ over the course of a year ⎼ out of 100 couples with an uninfected man and a HSV-2 infected women, about 2 men would get HSV-2.)

I think those are pretty good odds. But be aware that there’s still a small risk of transmission even with these precautions. The risk can be further reduced if she is willing to take a daily antiviral medication like Valacyclovir.

Bottom line: it’s entirely possible for you to enjoy sexual activity with a partner who has herpes as long as you take precautions...and as long as you’re willing to assume some risk. That said, remember that ⎼ while herpes isn’t curable ⎼ it’s definitely treatable, manageable and not life-threatening in adults. If you’re interested, there’s more to learn about herpes transfer, symptoms and testing in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.  

Good luck and thanks for sharing your question. I wish you both the best of health. 

Related info:

Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP

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.

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