Genital Herpes: Will Condoms Protect You Against It?

can condoms protect against herpes
When people think of herpes, they usually think of cold sores that appear on the mouth and face. However, it’s important to note that the herpes virus can also affect the genital area. In this case, it’s called “genital herpes”.

It’s estimated that only one-third of patients with genital herpes experience symptoms; the other two-thirds are asymptomatic or have symptoms too mild to be of concern.

On top of this, one study shows that almost 50 percent of patients do not know that they can transmit the disease even when they don’t have an outbreak. Around 30 percent do not know that they can pass on the virus even when their sores have completely healed.

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Due to this lack of awareness, the disease can be easily passed from one person to another. In fact, genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world. In the U.S., for example, around 45 million people — or around four individuals out of five — have this condition.


What are the signs and symptoms of genital herpes?

So how do you know that you have genital herpes? In males, the most common sign to look out for is the lesions that appear in the genital area. Specifically, they can be found on the head and shaft of the penis, although they can also be found in the anus and rectum (particularly among those who participate in anal sex) as well as in the buttocks and inner thighs. These lesions stay around for a couple of weeks, after which they transform into ulcers and form crusts before finally healing.

Aside from having lesions, you might feel pain in the affected area as well as a burning and/or itching sensation. There might also be fever, headache, body malaise, muscle pain, penile discharges, and enlarged lymph nodes [1].

As mentioned above, not everyone who has genital herpes are symptomatic. Some have mild versions of the signs and symptoms listed above, while others feel no discomfort at all. It’s also important to note that people can still pass on the diseases even when they don’t exhibit signs and symptoms or when their lesions have already healed. [2]

Types of genital herpes

Genital herpes can be classified according to the type of virus that caused it: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 usually lies dormant in the nerve cells located at the base of the neck, which is why it has historically been the common cause of cold sores on the mouth, nose, eyes, and lips. HSV-2, meanwhile, lies dormant in the nerve cells at the lower part of the spinal cord, which is why it mainly affects the genital area.

Despite this, both of these viruses can cause genital herpes. In fact, genital herpes caused by HSV-1 is now on the rise; according to experts, over 30 percent of new cases are caused by HSV-1. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out, one of the biggest reasons for this is oral sex: a person with cold sores in their mouth can pass on HSV-1 to the genitals of another person, giving him or her genital herpes.

How genital herpes can be treated

For the moment, genital herpes is incurable. There is no treatment available to completely banish the virus from the body, making it a lifetime condition [3]. The virus simply lies inactive in the nervous system, and it “awakens” when triggered by various factors like fatigue, illnesses, physical or emotional stress, and even vigorous sex. Genital herpes caused by HSV-1 recurs around once a year, while those caused by HSV-2 have outbreaks four to six times a year.

Fortunately, even if the disease itself has no treatment, there are some drugs that can help manage the signs and symptoms and generally decrease the discomfort that patients feel. Acyclovir, for example, helps decrease the number of lesions that would develop, minimize the pain that patients feel, and reduce the frequency of outbreaks. [4]

Famciclovir helps accelerate the healing time of sores while preventing new ones from forming, and it reduces pain and itching and reduces the length and severity of recurring infections.

Precautions against genital herpes

The best ways to avoid genital herpes are to practice abstinence or maintain a monogamous relationship with your partner. If you’re not in a monogamous relationship, try to have as few sexual partners as possible. If your partner has a lesion in his or her genital area, avoid vaginal or anal sex; if he or she has a cold sore in the mouth, refrain from having oral sex.

You can get yourself and your partner tested for genital herpes if you want to. There are blood tests that can detect the presence of HSV antibodies, but they are hard to interpret and may have false positive or false negative results. The best way to know if you or your partner has genital herpes is to visit your doctor when you notice even just one small lesion in your genital area or when you experience the signs and symptoms mentioned above.

std test

Can condoms protect you from genital herpes?

Using condoms does reduce the risk of contracting genital herpes, but doesn’t provide complete protection. Studies show that people who consistently use condoms when they have sex have a 30 percent lower risk of contracting genital herpes from their partners. Make sure to wear the condom properly and to use it from the beginning to the end of the sexual act.

Aside from condoms, you can use dental dams when performing oral sex on a partner. It’s also wise to use lubrication, which prevents irritation and trauma and helps reduce the risk of infection recurrence in a partner with genital herpes.

Of course, it’s important to remember that condoms cover only your penis. Genital herpes lesions can develop in places that your body might touch even when you’re wearing a condom. When this happens, the virus can be transferred to you.

With this in mind, the best thing to do is to avoid having sex if your partner has an open or still-healing sore on their genital area. If you know that they have genital herpes, encourage them to visit their doctor and take the prescribed antiviral medications.

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