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Having Sex With Herpes: Tips for a Healthy Sex Life

Kristin Hall, FNP

Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Lauren Panoff

Published 12/12/2018

Updated 11/06/2023

Navigating the seas of intimacy with a new partner can feel like uncharted territory, especially when herpes is a factor.

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with herpes or are exploring a relationship with someone who has, figuring out how to handle the route ahead may feel rocky.

Though herpes isn’t new, many people are still under the impression that having it means the end of a normal, healthy sex life.

But don’t despair, sailor. You can still have a healthy and fulfilling sex life, even if you, your partner or both of you have herpes. In fact, while herpes isn’t curable, it’s very manageable.

When we say “herpes,” we’re referring to herpes simplex virus (HSV). This includes two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. While each herpes simplex virus type can affect the body differently, both warrant your attention to have responsible sex. 

Before we go any further, a PSA: Having herpes doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy, unsafe or unclean. Herpes is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the world. Plain and simple, anyone who’s ever kissed can get oral herpes, and anyone who’s been sexually active can get a genital herpes infection.

So shake off any shame, guilt or judgment you may have previously felt about herpes, and let’s move on.

We’re covering everything you need to know about having sex with herpes, including the best preventive practices for a safer sex life.

Can you have sex with herpes? Yes, you can have a sex life with herpes — and it can be totally healthy with the right awareness and precautions.

Still, herpes is a lifelong virus. To be as safe as possible, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

Identify and Treat

First, while herpes doesn’t need to end your sex life, it’s best to pause sexual activity when you have an initial outbreak.

This is the time to understand what’s going on with your body, get medical advice and herpes treatment, and have honest conversations with your partner. 

The most common drug used to treat oral and genital herpes is valacyclovir. But there are two other FDA-approved antiviral medications, acyclovir and famciclovir.

These meds are generally taken two to three times per day for seven to 10 days in response to an outbreak. Dosages are adjusted depending on why they’re prescribed.

For guidance on what to expect with prescription treatment, see our post on how fast valacyclovir works.

Once an outbreak is treated and has healed, you can refocus on your sex life with the understanding that herpes can be unpredictable. Most people with HSV don’t even know they have it.

herpes treatment

your outbreak is no match against an Rx option.

Understand the Virus

Herpes outbreak frequency can vary. While some people never experience symptoms, others will have occasional herpes outbreaks that may take one or two weeks to heal.

On average, you might expect one outbreak per year with HSV-1 and up to five recurrences per year with HSV-2.

With that said, it’s crucial to understand the differences between HSV-1 versus HSV-2. HSV-1 is more likely to infect the lips and mouth — like having cold sores — whereas HSV-2 is more likely to present as herpes sores on and around the genitals. 

HSV-1 is also far more common, affecting over two-thirds of people aged 14 to forty-nine. Most people with oral herpes actually contract it as kids from non-sexual contact with saliva. And while less common, HSV-2 affects at least 13 percent of people in that same age range.

Overall, an estimated 90 percent of people on the planet have one or both viruses. Take that, stigma.

Communicate and Plan Ahead

Communication with your sexual partner is critical for both of your health and for your relationship.

Nobody wants to share that they have a sexually transmitted disease or an STI, but getting it out into the open is the only way to move forward responsibly. (This definitely shouldn’t be right after you’ve already had sex or in the moment leading up to the first time.)

Finally, get on the same page about minimizing the risk of transmission. Don’t have sex during an outbreak. Period.

For HSV-1, this also includes kissing, as a cold sore is always contagious. See more details about how to reduce HSV-1 transmission during an outbreak in our guide to kissing and cold sores.

Overall, while having a herpes infection can present unique challenges to a relationship, it’s totally possible to have a satisfying sex life when the right precautions are taken.

When one partner has herpes and the other one doesn’t (or when one partner has HSV-1 and the other has HSV-2), awareness and safety precautions are essential. 

But what if both partners have HSV-2? Well, not that having any type of herpes is enjoyable, but when you’re both managing the same virus type, it makes things a little easier.

First, be 100 percent certain you both have HSV-2. You should each have a current blood test to confirm herpes antibodies and the correct herpes diagnosis. 

When this is the case, there’s no risk of transmission. It also means you don’t need to be on medication to protect each other — as long as you’re in a monogamous relationship (so yes, you need to have “the talk”).

In any case, we’d never tell you to throw all caution to the wind when it comes to intimate relationships, as practicing safe and responsible sex is always smart.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics around having sex with herpes, you’d probably like to know about oral sex. Maybe you’re wondering, Can I still receive oral with herpes? If my partner has herpes, can I give oral?

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), oral herpes caused by HSV-1 can be transmitted to the genitals via oral sex. This means not all cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-2.

It’s prudent to avoid any sexual contact when there are visible symptoms of a flare-up, like blisters.

Once the outbreak is over, the best way to have safer oral sex with herpes is to use a condom or a dental dam. This helps prevent transmission between the mouth and genital area.

If you’ve made it this far, we’d just like to stop and say, good on you. You clearly care about the safety of yourself and your partner and want to move forward in the most responsible way.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of how herpes simplex virus can be transmitted and why precautions are so vital. While the risk of spread can’t be eliminated completely, there are ways to improve safety. 

Here are some of the most effective tips for engaging in sex with herpes.

  • Never have sex during an outbreak. The middle of a herpes outbreak is when the most “viral shedding” happens. This is the period after the virus has reproduced itself in an infection and is actively released from the body (aka, you’re very contagious). How long after a herpes outbreak is it safe to have sex? According to experts, herpes can still be transmitted during periods of asymptomatic viral shedding. While you should avoid sexual contact during an outbreak, it’s essential to practice safe sex with a condom even after visible symptoms have disappeared.

  • Use condoms. Using a condom is an easy and effective method of reducing the risk of STI transmission (and pregnancy, hello). A 2015 study looked at over 900 African couples who were positive for both HSV-2 and HIV and found that condom use reduces the per-act risk of HSV-2 transmission from male to female by 96 percent and from female to male by 65 percent. Don’t want to run to the store? You can also discreetly buy condoms online.

  • Use a dental dam for oral sex. A dental dam is a latex or polyurethane sheet that acts like a condom for oral sex. It works as a protective barrier between your mouth and your partner’s vagina or anus. These one-time-use sheets help minimize the risk of HSV transmission by preventing direct contact.

  • Accept that there’s still a risk of infection. The herpes virus can still spread despite your best-laid plans to limit skin-to-skin contact. This means both parties need to clearly understand and acknowledge the potential implications of herpes as a factor in the relationship.

  • Know your treatment options. There are currently three FDA-approved antiviral medications for genital herpes: acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir. Research shows you’re 48 percent less likely to transmit herpes to your partner if you take valacyclovir for suppressive herpes therapy. This is a reduction in transmission risk from 3.9 percent to 1.9 percent.

  • Get an approved treatment. The most effective and responsible way to manage herpes is to take your medicine exactly as your healthcare provider prescribes it. Of course, this requires an unfiltered conversation with a healthcare professional.

herpes treatment

your outbreak is no match against an Rx option.

Don’t let herpes block you from having a fulfilling sexual relationship and love life. With a combination of education, communication, a positive attitude and the proper precautionary methods, there’s no reason herpes should be a hindrance in the long run.

Just remember:

  • HSV is very common. Any shame, guilt or judgment you’ve felt around it should be tossed out the window. Having HSV isn’t an indication of irresponsibility or uncleanliness. Anyone can contract herpes.

  • It’s manageable. While you can’t cure herpes, you can manage it with herpes medication. That’s why seeing a medical professional at the first outbreak sign is so important. Antiviral medications like valacyclovir are effective when used as directed, so take your treatment options seriously.

  • Communication is key. Every healthy relationship requires honesty and open communication. If herpes is a factor, give it the attention and priority it deserves. By talking things through, you can not only show mutual respect but also get on the same page in terms of awareness and precautions. 

  • You can still have sex. You don’t need to become celibate because you have HSV — just don’t have sex during an outbreak. And be sure to practice safe sex, using things like condoms and dental dams, the rest of the time to avoid contact with the infected area.

We care about your sexual health and are rooting for you. Not in a weird way — we just want you to be safe and satisfied.

If you have questions about having sex with herpes, consider getting in touch virtually with one of our online medical experts.

14 Sources

  1. Genital Herpes – CDC Detailed Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed 21 July 2022. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm
  2. Genital Herpes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed 25 Jan 2021. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/default.htm
  3. Genital Herpes – CDC Basic Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed 3 Jan 2022. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
  4. Herpes: Fast Facts. American Sexual Health Association. https://www.ashasexualhealth.org/herpes/
  5. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021. Genital Herpes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed 21 Sept 2022. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/std/treatment-guidelines/herpes.htm
  6. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. What are the treatment options for genital herpes? 2018 Jul 12. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525771/
  7. Massive proportion of world’s population are living with herpes infection. World Health Organization. Published 1 May 2020. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/01-05-2020-massive-proportion-world-population-living-with-herpes-infection
  8. Herpes simplex virus. World Health Organization. Published 5 April 2023. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus
  9. Wald A, Corey L. Persistence in the population: epidemiology, transmission. In: Arvin A, Campadelli-Fiume G, Mocarski E, et al., editors. Human Herpesviruses: Biology, Therapy, and Immunoprophylaxis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2007. Chapter 36. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK47447/
  10. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Genital herpes: How can you prevent the spread of herpes in sexual relationships? 2018 Jul 12. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525787/
  11. Mertz, G. J., Benedetti, J., Ashley, R., Selke, S. A., & Corey, L. (1992). Risk factors for the sexual transmission of genital herpes. Annals of internal medicine, 116(3), 197–202. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-116-3-197
  12. Bonnar P. E. (2009). Suppressive valacyclovir therapy to reduce genital herpes transmission: good public health policy?. McGill journal of medicine : MJM : an international forum for the advancement of medical sciences by students,12(1), 39–46. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2687913/
  13. Magaret, A. S., Mujugira, A., Hughes, J. P., Lingappa, J., Bukusi, E. A., DeBruyn, G., Delany-Moretlwe, S., Fife, K. H., Gray, G. E., Kapiga, S., Karita, E., Mugo, N. R., Rees, H., Ronald, A., Vwalika, B., Were, E., Celum, C., Wald, A., & Partners in Prevention HSV/HIV Transmission Study Team (2016). Effect of Condom Use on Per-act HSV-2 Transmission Risk in HIV-1, HSV-2-discordant Couples. Clinical infectious diseases : an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 62(4), 456–461. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/civ908
  14. Dental Dam Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed 2 June 2021. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/Dental-dam-use.html
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Kristin Hall, FNP

Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership. 

She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH

Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare. 

Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.

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