Although living with the herpes virus is a very manageable condition, a person who has not contracted the virus should take every precaution possible. There is no cure for herpes and although one can find quality treatments for herpes to manage outbreaks, following some guidelines for prevention can minimize the chances of catching the disease.
Herpes is most easily spread when a sore is present, but is also often spread at other times. Some people notice itching, tingling or other sensations before they see anything on their skin. These are called “Prodromal Symptoms” and they warn that the virus may be present on the skin. Herpes is most likely to be spread from the time these first symptoms are noticed until the area is completely healed and the skin looks normal again. Contact with the infected area (including oral, vaginal, or anal sex) is very risky during this time.
If there are no symptoms occurring in the infected area at the time of contact there is still a small chance of spreading the herpes virus because occasionally the virus can shed itself at the skin’s surface (in the area of infection). This is scientifically referred to as Viral Shedding. Although it is impossible to predict when viral shedding is occurring it is estimated that it only occurs approximately 5% of days during the year (possibly even less after having the virus for a long period of time) and this is usually during the few days just before, during and after an outbreak.
It is a good idea to use latex condoms or latex barrier protection in-between outbreaks for additional protection (please see your doctor for alternative barrier methods if you are allergic to latex). The herpes virus does not pass through latex condoms, and when properly used latex condoms are likely to reduce your risk of spreading or getting herpes, however even the best condoms do not guarantee total safety.
When herpes sores occur in places not covered by a condom the condom is of little help, if any. Condoms and foams should not be relied upon when herpes sores or symptoms are present. Condoms do not guarantee 100% protection because a lesion may be found which the condom did not cover. Used consistently, however, condoms are one of the best available forms of prevention.
One kind of complication involves spreading the virus from the location of an outbreak to other places on the body by touching the infection and then transferring the virus particles. The fingers (herpes whitlow), eyes (ocular herpes), and other body areas can accidentally become infected in this way.
This type of scenario is rare and is more likely to happen only in cases where:
- The immune system is highly compromised (such as in patients with HIV)
- There is a tear or break in the skin allowing easier access for the virus to transmit
- During the first primary outbreak (when the body may not have had time to build up sufficient antibodies)
Preventing self-infection is simple. Be mindful of transmitting the virus to other skin areas where there is broken skin and avoid touching the area during an outbreak. If you do, immediately wash your hands and the area that you have touched with soap and water, this can potentially kill the local virus particles and will help to prevent spreading it further. Just remember, self re-infection to other body areas (also called auto-inoculation) is highly unlikely during a recurrent outbreak and fairly uncommon in general. So, be sensible and don’t let paranoia rule your thoughts.
Genital herpes can be transmitted through direct contact with a herpes infection (such as an infected blister or sore), usually through sexual contact such as oral, vaginal or anal intercourse. Herpes can also be transmitted when there are no symptoms present and be dormant for a long period of time before you recognize any signs or symptoms. It is also possible to contract genital herpes from a cold sore on a partner’s mouth or face through oral sex. It is possible to pass the virus on even if they did not have a cold sore present at the time of contact. To help prevent transmission it is important not to engage in any activities that involve touching the affected area while there are sign or symptoms, this includes itching, tingling or irritation on the skin.
Cold sores are generally contracted from skin to skin contact with an infected area. For example, if someone has a cold sore on their lip they can pass on the virus to another person’s mouth through kissing. The usual incubation period of the virus (time before any symptoms show) is approximately two to twelve days after the first exposure to the virus. As most people contract cold sores before the age of seven, it is common for a person not to remember their first or ‘primary’ cold sore outbreak. Once infected with cold sores, the virus remains inside the body in a latent (sleeping) state. Throughout a person’s life the virus can then become “activated” causing a cold sore recurrence.
Many couples have been in a relationship for years without ever transmitting herpes. Some simply avoid having sexual contact when signs or symptoms are present, while others use condoms or other protection in between outbreaks to help guard against asymptomatic viral shedding. If you take the necessary precautions, the chances of getting the virus from your partner are small. Genital herpes does not necessarily mean complete abstinence from sex or a reduced enjoyment of sex. If you both know the facts and keep the issue in perspective, it can be only a minor inconvenience.
In some cases, the risk of transmitting the virus can be reduced by up to 40% if you with the use of condoms. However, the continued use of condoms in a long-term relationship is a personal decision that only the couple can make. Most couples find that as the importance of the HSV infection in their relationship is seen in perspective, condom use can become less relevant if this is the only reason condoms are being used.
At all costs couples should try to avoid sexual intercourse during an active episode of herpes, because this is when the virus is most likely to be transmitted. This period includes from the time when your partner first has warning signs of an outbreak, such as a tingling or burning in the genitals, until the last of the sores has healed. If you or your partner has an active cold sore, it is advisable to avoid oral sex as this can spread the virus to the genitals.
Sexual activity can prolong the healing of the episode and the risk can be increased if there are any breaks or cuts in the skin, such as if you have thrush or small abrasions from sexual intercourse (often due to insufficient lubrication). It can be helpful to use a lubricant specifically for sexual intercourse and avoid sex if you have thrush. Sexual lubrication is helpful right at the start of sexual activity.
Sores in other areas, such as the buttocks and thighs, can be just as contagious as those in the genital area, and care should be taken to avoid direct contact with such sores during sex. At other times, there is still a small risk of transmitting the infection, even if there are no signs of genital herpes.
The fact is you cannot catch genital herpes by sharing cups, towels or bath water, or from toilet seats. Even during an outbreak, it is only skin to skin contact with the parts of your partner’s body which have the sores which you need to avoid. If you or your partner has genital herpes, you can still cuddle, share a bed, or kiss.
In a sexual relationship with a person who has herpes, the risk of contracting the infection will never be zero. However, these steps can greatly reduce the risk:
- Tell Your Partner
It is important that both you and your partner understand what herpes is, what this condition involves and the precautions that should be followed to help prevent transmission. Telling a partner is often the hardest step, but once you have done this you can be honest with each other and work together to safe-guard against HSV.
- Avoid contact during the “high risk” periods
Avoid contact with the affected area in the few days before, during and just after an outbreak because herpes is most contagious during this time. Cold sores are a form of the Herpes simplex virus so the same rules apply. Some couples have had successful relationships for years without ever transmitting herpes, sometimes this is done just by avoiding sexual contact when symptoms are present (this includes any sign of itching, tingling or burning in the affected area, as these can be an indication that the virus is active).
- Limit the number of sexual partners
By having sex with a non-infected partner who has sex only with you (mutual monogamy) you are greatly decreasing the chance of spreading the herpes virus to other people. This does not mean that you have to be with the same person for the rest of your life, it simply means that by being faithful to the one person while you are with them, you are making a responsible choice which can reduce transmission.
- Use Latex Condoms and Dental Dams in between outbreaks
Condoms offer useful protection against herpes, protecting or covering the mucous membranes which are the most likely sites of infection. Although they can nearly halve the risk in some cases, condoms do not guarantee safety. This is because the herpes infection is not always located in an area that can be covered by a condom.
- While in a relationship, take a daily remedy to help reduce viral shedding
Some medicinal herbs have been proven to reduce herpes viral shedding in clinical studies, so incorporating one or both of these options may help to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus to your partner when there are no symptoms. Be sure to do your homework and find the best treatments for herpes.