Sex with Herpes: Precautions and Data

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Even if you or your partner has genital herpes, it’s still possible to have a rich and fulfilling sex life. Sex with herpes can be intimate, romantic, loving, and fun. A partner who doesn’t have herpes won’t always necessarily get it. Research has even shown how likely people are to transmit herpes during sex. The data shows exactly which safe sex precautions can work.

Sex with Herpes - How to Have Safe Sex with Herpes

Note: Always tell your partner if you have genital HSV, even if you have no symptoms. (How to tell someone you have herpes). The CDC recommends a mutually monogamous relationship for sex to be safest.

Herpes, Sex, and Outbreaks

  • The likelihood of passing genital herpes to a partner is highest during an outbreak (times when a sore is present).
  • When a person is not experiencing an outbreak, there is a 4-10% chance of transmitting it. (Depending mostly on the sex of the partner.)

Men vs. Women with Herpes

Because of the nature of male and female genitalia, it is easier for herpes to be transmitted to a woman by a man than vice-versa. This is because female genitals have more exposed soft tissue. This also accounts for the slight gender gap in women vs. men with herpes. Approximately one in four American women in has it, while approximately one in five American men does. (Statistics, depending on populations used, vary slightly.)

Condoms and Herpes

Condoms don’t prevent herpes transmission, but they help, cutting down the rate of transmission by about 30%. Condoms are not totally effective because genital herpes only require skin-to-skin contact to spread, so the areas that the condom does not cover are still susceptible. Some people get herpes even though they’ve always used condoms! Nonetheless, using a condom is a great idea and reducing the chancing by almost a third is nothing to sneeze at. For example, if you’re a man who is not having an outbreak, you would have an 8% chance of giving it to your partner. But using a condom, you’d bring that number down. (Add in antivirals, and you’ve brought it down to 2%). For more information, read: Do condoms prevent herpes?

Monogamous couples who know their status may want to forgo the use of condoms for whatever reason (i.e. in order to get pregnant, or because condoms are just not preferred and they are monogamous and use birth control). This is still possible as long as other precautions are taken and both parties are informed and aware of the risks. Read: When is herpes not contagious?

Suppressive Therapy

Taking Valtrex every day is called suppressive therapy. Valtrex is often used only when an outbreak starts, but daily use can prevent outbreaks to begin with. Doing so also reduces the time that the virus is contagious. Studies show that it can reduce the viral shedding periods so much that transmission rates drop by 50%.

With Valtrex, doctors usually prescribe one pill a day for the purpose of suppressive therapy. However, Valtrex is expensive without insurance.

Other antivirals for herpes are acyclovir and Zovirax. Acyclovir can be used daily as well, but requires you to take many more capsules at a time.

Cons: Side effects of Valtrex can include dehydration and extreme thirst, and for a few individuals, disorientation. Know the effect it has on you before you drive a car. Valtrex can be hard on the liver. If you don’t want to take Valtrex every day, you can try things like eating a healthy diet, reducing stress, and natural herpes remedies.

Oral Sex and Herpes

HSV-1 is usually associated with oral herpes, but it can also spread to the genitals through oral sex. Most people know not to kiss or share a drink while a cold sore is present. The same goes for not performing oral sex while a cold sore is present. You might also wish to use a condom or dental dam.

A dental dam is a latex barrier that can be placed over the vulva/vagina (and anal area if involved) to prevent skin-to-skin contact during oral sex. (Here are some dental dams on Amazon).

HSV-2, which is usually genital herpes, can also spread to the oral region, but it’s not as likely. It is possible, but rare, since HSV-2 doesn’t like the oral environment. In fact, only 3% of oral herpes outbreaks are from HSV-2.

Herpes Transmission Rates

  • The likelihood of passing genital herpes to a partner is highest during an outbreak (times when a sore is present).
  • When a person is not experiencing an outbreak, there is a 4-10% chance of transmitting it. (Depending on sex of infected person)

According to studies done by Valtrex, these are the rates of transmission per year of regular sex:

  • If partners avoid sex during outbreaks: 4% chance transmission from female to male; 8% male to female
  • If partners also use condoms or antiviral medication: 2% female to male; 4% per year male to female
  • If partners also use condoms and antiviral medications: 1% female to male; 2% male to female

When Both Partners Have Herpes

Congratulations — you can skip having the talk! If you and your partner have the same type of herpes, you have more freedom than a couple not trying to infect one partner. If you both have HSV-2, for example, you both already have the antibodies built up and cannot be re-infected. Your outbreaks and symptoms will instead be affected by the strength of your immune system, so keep it strong.

You will also not necessarily have the same need to avoid sex during and around times of outbreaks, but you will probably want to, for the sake of avoiding discomfort or prolonging the outbreak by irritating it.

If you have different strains of herpes; i.e. one of you has HSV-1 and one has HSV-2, read on. You are already well-protected by your antibodies. If you have HSV-2, you can still get, but might not be as likely to get, genital HSV-1. If you have HSV-1, however, you are still as susceptible to get HSV-2. Getting tested.

There are dating sites for people with herpes that can help you to meet potential partners with the same type of HSV as you. (We recommend Positive Singles — read our review here).


Transmission rates show that you can have sex with herpes without necessarily passing it along. Remember that you must always tell potential partners if you have herpes, even even you have no symptoms.