Receiving a diagnosis of oral or genital herpes can be devastating, yet it happens to one in five people in the United States. While one’s initial response to having herpes is treatment to manage the infection and outbreaks, living with the stigma of having an incurable disease and navigating future physical intimacy is a top concern for many. The good news is that you can still have a fulfilling and safe sex life, provided you take the proper ‘bedside’ precautions and engage in honest, open communication with your partner.
Only you and your doctor can decide what the best course of action is after a diagnosis; however, staying on top of your treatment and being proactive about your sexual health (understanding the risks) is the first step to maintaining an active, safe sex life. Treatments can shorten and prevent breakouts and suppressive therapies can help reduce the chances of transmission of the virus during sexual intimacy.
During Active Outbreaks
Abstaining from physical intimacy during (or just before) an active outbreak is essential to limiting the chances of transmission as well as to speed up the healing of the sores. Transmission can also occur if a partner touches a part of the infected skin that is actively “shedding” (such as kissing or touching of the mouth during an active oral herpes outbreak.)
Sex should not begin until at least a week after all the herpes sores are healed.
Nevertheless, if you need to be “sexually active” during an active outbreak, mutual-masturbation is one way to achieve sexual fulfillment. This form of non-penetrative sexual act can be performed together facing one another or side-by-side. Partners can also make use of sex toys such as vibrators, dildos or male flesh-lights on each other without coming into any direct contact with the skin.
In general, it is best to limit any form of direct skin contact between partners since the herpes virus is the most contagious during this period. Similarly, any friction created during the ‘act of stimulation’ can irritate the skin and pose a transmission risk. In addition, bodily fluids can also pose a risk if it is exchanged by accident when one is not careful or too caught up in the moment.
Remember to always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately. Also, it is important to never share any of your sex toys and all the sex toys must be washed and disinfected after every use.
In Between Herpes Outbreaks
Ideally, medical doctors recommend that one should wait at least a week after all herpes sores have healed before engaging in any form of physical sex. However, it is important to point out that there is still a risk of transmission to your partner (between 4 and 10 percent chance) even if there has been no outbreaks for months.
If you are going to be sexually active, there are steps that one can take to minimize the risks of infection and enjoy sexual intimacy.
- Always use a condom even though they are not 100% effective. Some individuals may not present any symptoms during an active outbreak and any contact with the infected skin around the genital region not covered by the condom can still spread the infection. Even during the latent phases of the virus, there is still a risk of transmission. Still, the consistent and correct use of a condom is a way to protect you and your partner and reduce the risks of infection.
- Consider using water-based lubrication. Since rough or painful sex can irritate the skin and trigger an outbreak, the use of a water-based lubricant can aid in reducing friction caused by skin-to-skin or rubber-to-skin contact during genital sex.
- Avoid oil-based lubricants and Nonoxynol-9. All oil-based lubricants can reduce the effectiveness of condoms since oil breaks down the latex and increase the risk of tearing. Lubricants and condoms with spermicide nonoxynol-9 can also cause tearing in the membranes of both partners, increasing the risk of transmission.
Communicating With Your Partner
An honest, open dialogue with your partner is essential if you want to maintain an active and fulfilling sex life. While the initial conversation divulging your condition can be frightening, approaching the topic with honesty in regards to your health and the risks involved helps to ensure that you’re both on the same page.
- Before sex, talk openly with your partner about your condition. Let him or her know how herpes can be transmitted, the risks, treatments you are currently undergoing and what methods you are using to protect your partner. Also discuss how far you want to go and set your sexual limits before getting physical.
- Always inform your partner when you’re about to experience an outbreak (tingling, itching or burning sensation in an area where herpes sores had appear before) or is currently having an active outbreak.
- Be willing to answer questions. Chances are your partner will (or still) have questions when they are ready to get intimate with you, so have all the facts ready about your condition. Being able to answer all the questions can help make your partner feel better too. Answer honestly, thoroughly and, if necessary, consider taking your partner to an appointment with your doctor.