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Dating with herpes: How to stay safe while having fun

Around 80% of Aussies carry herpes, many of whom are in thriving relationships.

Written by
Lucinda Starr
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 17, 2024
min read
Dating with herpes: How to stay safe while having fun
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Receiving a diagnosis of herpes can be really difficult and pretty scary. There are probably a million thoughts running through your head, from how you can manage it and even the logistics around dating with herpes.

The important thing to remember is there are millions of people with herpes with around 80% of Aussies carrying herpes, many of whom are in thriving relationships and living a completely normal life.

But, you might be wondering how to broach the topic of herpes with your past partners, a current partner, or even a new partner. Luckily, we've got a bunch of tips and tricks about navigating these tricky conversations and setting the record straight about the herpes virus and what treatment options are out there to reduce outbreaks and alleviate your symptoms.

What is herpes?

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) — a.k.a herpes — is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause painful blisters or ulcers which are treatable but not curable [1]. There are 2 types of herpes simplex virus [2]:

  • HSV 1 (type 1): This is the virus that causes cold sores on the lips and the face and roughly 80% of Australians carry HSV-1
  • HSV 2 (type 2): This is the virus causing genital herpes and is spread through sexual contact

Most people with herpes display no symptoms or only have mild symptoms, with some never being aware they have herpes which can spread the virus to others without ever knowing. The most common symptoms of herpes can include painful blisters or ulcers either on the mouth and lips or around the genitals [1].

New infections can be different during the first herpes outbreak, which can cause body aches, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. When symptoms arise, they often start with itching, burning, or tingling near the herpes sores [1].

How is the virus spread?

Herpes enters the body via small scrapes in the skin or the soft lining of the mouth, genitals, anus, or urethra, which then lives in the nerves underneath the skin and sits there inactive and unknowingly to many people for years [3].

HSV spreads in the following ways [3]:

  • During oral sex or kissing someone who either is about to get a cold sore or who already has cold sores
  • During foreplay and non-penetrative sexual contact, if the virus is active on the skin outside the genital area
  • Skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity or by sharing sex toys

Herpes transmission can be spread when someone has an episode involving sores, blisters, ulcers, or skin splits (this is called viral shedding) or it can be spread in between episodes without any sores, blisters, ulcers, or skin splits which is called asymptomatic shedding (although this is generally low risk of transmission) [4].

Don't worry — your dating life isn't over

If you've just been told you've got herpes, you might immediately think your dating life is over. While being told you have an STI isn't the best feeling in the world and it isn't a pleasant experience, you might never experience a flare-up of symptoms, and if you do have an outbreak, they are most often temporary and infrequent.

The truth is dating with herpes isn't as big of a deal as you might think. After all, 80% of Aussies carry HSV1, and around 1 in 8 people carry HSV2, so you shouldn't feel ashamed when many people have it [2][5].

Here are some things to keep in mind when navigating dating with herpes.

Be transparent

It's totally normal to be scared to tell your partner or a new partner that you have herpes and there is no black-and-white rule book to follow to tell your partner about your diagnosis.

While you don't need to let new partners know on a first date, letting your prospective partner know before you engage in sexual activity or exchange bodily fluids is really important.

Being proactive and upfront about the topic can give your partner time to wrap their head around the news. Plus, it's important to allow your partner to make an informed decision about whether or not they feel comfortable taking sexual health risks. Honesty is always the best policy here.

Reduce transmission risk

Like all sexually transmitted infections, it's important to practice safe sex and reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to multiple sexual partners. Luckily there are plenty of ways you can have an enjoyable sex life with a herpes diagnosis.

  • Speak to your doctor about antiviral medication and suppressive therapy, which can significantly reduce the risk of transmission [6]
  • If you're experiencing an outbreak, it's best to avoid sexual activity during this time as herpes is more likely to spread to other people
  • Use condoms consistently along with dental dams and other contraceptives to have a physical barrier that reduces direct skin contact during sexual activity

Do I have to disclose herpes?

If you've recently received a herpes diagnosis, you might be wondering whether or not you're legally required to tell your previous, current, or future partners about your herpes status.

Most state-based laws have removed any legal requirements about disclosing STIs to potential partners but each state has its own set of rules and what is considered 'reasonable precautions' that reduce the risk of transmission [7].

This can include anything from taking antibiotics for bacterial STIs or using dental dams or condoms consistently and getting regularly checked for STIs.

While you might not legally need to disclose your diagnosis, it's always best practice to be upfront, open and honest with your partners.

How do I talk with people about having herpes?

Whether you've been diagnosed with genital herpes or oral herpes, telling people about your herpes status isn't always a comfortable conversation. But being open and honest with your partner are important aspects of dating with herpes and necessary for sexual relationships.

Here are our tips and tricks for navigating these conversations.

  • Keep calm: Millions of people have herpes and are in thriving relationships. Try to enter the conversation with a calm and positive mindset and explain that herpes is a health issue and it doesn't say something about the kind of person you are.
  • Choose the right moment: Picking the right time can be a challenge, but you should opt for a private and relaxing moment that's free of distractions. If you're feeling super nervous, try practising with a mate or on your own.
  • Know your facts: There's a lot of misinformation and myths about herpes flying out there so it's good to brush up on your knowledge so you can set the record straight. Let your prospective partner know that there are a bunch of ways to significantly reduce transmission risk to make them feel at ease.

Can I have unprotected sex with herpes?

Whether you're experiencing a herpes outbreak or you don't have any herpes symptoms, it's always important to practice safe sex. That means you should always be wearing condoms and while they don't entirely reduce the risk of transmission they do make a big difference.

In fact, one study found that using condoms reduces the transmission risk of HSV2 from males to females by 96% and by 65% from females to males [8]. Plus, to be extra safe you should avoid sexual activity when you're having a genital herpes outbreak when the most viral shedding (a.k.a you have blisters, open sores, or scabs) is happening to reduce the likelihood of infecting your partner.

The same applies to oral herpes outbreaks because they can spread to the genitals through skin-to-skin contact and cause the development of genital or anal herpes.

How can I reduce the transmission risk?

While getting a herpes diagnosis can be a difficult experience, there are plenty of ways to reduce outbreaks and the risk of spreading it to current and new partners from taking medication and always practising safe sex.

Medical treatment options

While there's no way to cure herpes, medication can prevent outbreaks and treat current herpes outbreaks. Pilot’s clinical herpes treatment is effective for cold sores and genital herpes, helping to stop the virus from multiplying and spreading to nearby healthy cells.

This not only reduces the frequency of outbreaks but lessens the severity and duration of symptoms when they do arise. Pilot's herpes treatment uses suppressive therapy to prevent future outbreaks, which reduces recurrences by 80% and reduces transmission risk by 50%.

Outbreak therapy, which is designed to treat a current outbreak with a short treatment plan may also be useful, helping to reduce outbreak duration by 50% while also providing fast relief from herpes symptoms.

We use online consultations with an Aussie practitioner and discreet shipping to make seeking treatment a judgment-free experience.

Practice safe sex

We've already spoken about how wearing condoms during sex can minimise transmission and wearing condoms in combination with taking antiviral medication for genital herpes reduces the likelihood of spreading herpes to 1%.

Plus, wearing dental dams further protects you or your partner against oral herpes, which acts as a condom for oral sex, safeguarding your partner from direct contact with the herpes virus. You should also avoid having sex during herpes outbreaks and when you've got genital herpes sores or oral herpes sores.

Ultimately, the herpes virus is a lot more common than people think and there's nothing to feel ashamed about. The best thing you can do if you've recently received a diagnosis of herpes is to talk to your doctor about getting started on medications and making sure you always practice safe sex so you can have a fulfilling sex life.

Image credit: Getty Images

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