How exactly does herpes spread?

By Amanda Gardner
December 17, 2018

Despite the millions (really!) of people who have genital herpes, the infection still carries significant stigma. Part of this may be that almost 90% of people who have genital herpes don’t actually know they’re infected—and the remaining 10% don’t exactly shout the news from the rooftops. Regardless, the end result is that dating with herpes can feel daunting.

You're probably wondering at least three things: if you need to tell a potential partner that you have genital or even oral herpes, and when and how to do so. Plus, you're probably at least a little curious about safer sex precautions. Here’s everything you need to know about dating with herpes simplex virus (or HSV).

For more on herpes, check out our Herpes Simplex Condition Center

Should you tell a partner you have herpes?

Definitely. Disclose your HSV status to anyone you’re getting involved with. “I encourage everyone to share their diagnosis with their partners so that everyone can make the healthiest decisions for themselves,” Melody A. Baldwin, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, tells Health.

That’s the moral part of the equation. Then there’s the legal part, says Terri Warren, an adult nurse practitioner and spokesperson for the American Sexual Health Association. “There are so many lawsuits of people suing someone else for giving them herpes,” says Warren, also the founder of Westover Research Group in Portland, Oregon. You don't want that to be you.

RELATED: Herpes Simplex 1 vs. Herpes Simplex 2—and Why the Difference Matters

When should you disclose your HSV status?

You don’t have to bring up herpes the very first time you talk to someone new, Warren says, but you should at some point before you have sex. “You are more likely to have a positive reception to that news if you have built some sort of relationship. If you tell too early and there’s no reason for this person to be invested in you, then you may get a negative response very quickly,” she says.

RELATED: Why Herpes Isn't as Bad as You Think (and a Lot More Common)

How do you tell someone you have herpes?

The hardest part may be deciding how to broach the subject. The specific words and phrases you use will obviously be highly individual depending on what kind of relationship you’re building. In general, though, don’t make a big deal of it. You never know—your partner may divulge he or she also has herpes. And if they have the same type of the virus as you, they can’t get “reinfected,” Dr. Baldwin says. (The herpes virus stays in a person’s body even after symptoms have subsided.)

You could start the conversation by mentioning cold sores, then move into the subject of genital herpes. You could also start by saying you want to be honest in the relationship, or that you want to discuss safe sex. “It can be a very difficult conversation to have, but you should be honest and straightforward,” says Dr. Baldwin.

RELATED: The Right Way to Tell Someone You Have an STI, According to Experts

How does herpes spread?

It also helps to know a little about how HSV works when you talk to a partner about the infection. Getting the details from your doctor first may be helpful, says Dr. Baldwin, because there’s no doubt that HSV can be confusing. For starters, there are two types of the virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2.

HSV-1 typically causes oral herpes, known for those trademark cold sores, while HSV-2 is usually to blame for genital herpes sores. “However, over the past few decades there has been an increase in HSV-1—which usually causes oral symptoms—causing genital herpes,” explains Dr. Baldwin. Genital herpes that come from HSV-1 are typically passed through oral sex—a good reason to divulge that you have oral herpes, if you do.

Both types of herpes can be passed on when there are active sores and, less frequently, even when there are no symptoms. “Some important information to share would be whether or not you have frequent outbreaks, which is the highest risk time for transmission,” says Dr. Baldwin. Lay off the sexual activity during an outbreak, as well as whenever you have the pain or tingling that signal an outbreak is coming, she says.

RELATED: How to Get Rid of a Cold Sore Fast—and Avoid Getting Another One

You should also tell your date if you are on any antiviral medications. Taken daily, drugs like acyclovir (Zovirax) and valacyclovir (Valtrex), can significantly reduce the risk of herpes transmission—but not 100%. That means condoms are a good idea, but even they can't fully prevent the virus from spreading, as it can be on genital areas not covered by a condom.

Bottom line? As long as you're honest and safe, herpes shouldn’t kill a budding relationship. “From my point of view, I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker,” says Warren.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Advertisement