How is Genital Herpes Transmitted?

Genital herpes is caused by a virus which is transmitted via skin to skin contact, particularly when having sex. It is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the UK. You can have the virus and not have any symptoms, which is why the virus is easily passed on between partners.

Dr Simran Deo Medical Editor

Medically reviewed by

Dr Simran Deo

Last reviewed: 09 Apr 2020

What Causes Herpes?

The virus which causes genital herpes is extremely common. It is very similar to the virus which causes cold sores. It is not dangerous but it can cause unpleasant symptoms. It is estimated, that 70% of adults catch one type of the herpes simplex virus at some point in their lives.

In 2013, over 32 000 people attended a sexual health clinic in England to get treated for their first episode of genital herpes.

How Can you Catch it?

Genital herpes is usually transmitted via skin to skin contact. The virus is passed on via skin contact.

When is Herpes Contagious?

Genital herpes is particularly contagious during the stage where blisters are present. You should not have sex with a partner who has genital herpes sores.

If you have sores, you should wait until they have healed off completely before you have sex again to protect your partner from catching the virus.

Although the risk of catching herpes is much higher when having sex with a person who has sores, you can also catch it from someone who doesn’t have any symptoms. Many people carry the virus but are unaware that they are infected. In many cases, the virus never causes outbreaks or noticeable symptoms.

Regardless of whether you catch genital herpes from someone who has symptoms or from someone who has never had an outbreak, you can develop symptoms.

Using a condom every time you have sex with a new partner significantly reduces your risk of catching the genital herpes virus.

Can you Catch Genital Herpes if you Use a Condom?

Condoms offer very good protection from many sexually transmitted diseases, including genital herpes. As the herpes virus is transmitted via skin contact rather than sexual fluids, condoms do not provide 100% protection. Condoms cover the man’s penis but still allow for skin to skin contact in the genital area, which means that a small risk of catching herpes remains.

However, if you have sex with someone who does not have symptoms and you use a condom, your risk of contracting the virus is very low.

Can you Catch Genital Herpes from Oral Sex?

You can catch herpes from performing or receiving oral sex.

If you receive oral sex from someone who has a cold sore, the virus which causes cold sores can cause sores on your genitals.

If you perform oral sex on someone who has genital herpes, you can develop sores in your mouth as a result.

Is it Possible to Get Infected with Genital Herpes More Than Once?

Once you have been infected with the genital herpes virus, you will carry the virus for the rest of your life. This does not mean that you will have symptoms but that the virus remains in your body. You can not get infected with the same virus again but you may experience recurrent outbreaks.

If you have caught genital herpes, you can still catch the virus which causes oral herpes and vice versa.

I Have Had a Genital Herpes Outbreak. Will I Always be Contagious?

If you have symptoms of genital herpes then you are a carrier of the virus which causes it. During the times where you experience genital herpes symptoms you will be highly contagious. There is also a risk that you can infect sexual partners when you don’t have symptoms but this risk is very low, especially if you use a condom.

Before you have unprotected sex with a new partner you should let your partner know that you have had a herpes outbreak in the past.

I Have Just had my First Episode of Herpes. Does this Mean my Current Partner Gave it to Me?

As the virus which causes herpes stays in your body for life it is difficult to tell when you have caught it. Although many people encounter symptoms within weeks of getting infected this is not true for everyone. The symptoms may be so mild and have gone unnoticed so you are not aware of having caught it.

Can you Get Genital Herpes from Kissing?

You can not catch genital herpes by kissing someone who has it. However, if you kiss someone who has cold sores you can catch the virus which causes oral herpes.

Is it Possible to Catch Herpes From a Toilet Seat?

You can not catch genital herpes - or any other STI - by using a public toilet. The virus does not survive outside the body and you can only catch it via intimate contact with an infected person.

You can not catch genital herpes from:

  • sharing towels
  • sharing food or drinks
  • kissing someone who has it
  • swimming in a swimming pool
  • shaking hands with someone who has it
  • using a public toilet

You can catch genital herpes from:

  • vaginal sex
  • anal sex
  • oral sex

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