Is it safe to have sex after a herpes outbreak?


Editorial Team


July 6, 2024

Man sitting on the edge of a bed, facing a bright window, reflecting on personal health decisions after a herpes outbreak.

Medical Review by Andrea Eisenberg MD


  • Herpes simplex virus exists in two forms: HSV-1, typically responsible for oral herpes, and HSV-2, which mainly causes genital herpes. Both types can spread through direct skin-to-skin contact.
  • Initial symptoms of herpes include tingling, itching, and burning, followed by the appearance of painful sores. Managing outbreaks involves using FDA-approved antiviral medications like Acyclovir, Valacyclovir, and Famciclovir, which help reduce the severity and frequency of these episodes.
  • Effective prevention of herpes transmission involves using barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams, and discussing one’s herpes status with potential partners to ensure informed consent and safe sex practices.
  • A herpes diagnosis can significantly impact emotional and psychological well-being. Seeking support through counseling or support groups can help individuals cope with the stigma associated with the diagnosis and improve communication with partners.

Having safe sex with herpes means being aware of the risks

The herpes virus (HSV) comes in two forms: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Most cases of oral herpes (or cold sores) are caused by HSV-1, whereas most genital herpes are caused by HSV-2. But both types can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which means you need to know the facts before having sex after an outbreak.

Our team at Lemonaid Health is here to help. Below, we’ve provided essential information on herpes outbreaks, including details on transmission risks, safe sex practices, and more. Let us help you make informed choices that support your long-term health, as well as the health of your current and future partners.

Symptoms & signs of a herpes outbreak

A herpes outbreak is characterized by several identifiable symptoms.

  • Initial signs might include tingling, itching, or burning sensations before any visible sores appear.
  • Soon after, blisters or ulcers form, which eventually burst and form painful sores.
  • Your first outbreak might also be accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

Primary outbreaks vs. recurrent episodes

The first outbreak of herpes is typically more intense and prolonged than subsequent recurrences. During a primary outbreak, symptoms are usually more severe, and the body has not yet developed a specific immune response to HSV.

Recurrent outbreaks tend to be milder and shorter in duration. The frequency of these episodes can vary significantly among individuals.

Transmission risks after an outbreak

Herpes can still spread after visible symptoms subside

It is important to understand that herpes can still be transmitted to your partner even after the sores have healed.

The virus can shed from seemingly healthy skin without visible symptoms. This is known as asymptomatic viral shedding, which unpredictably increases the risk of transmitting the virus.

Quick facts about viral shedding

  • Viral shedding can happen at any time, not just during an outbreak.
  • The likelihood of viral shedding is higher when symptoms are present.

Safe sex practices with herpes

Although the chances of spreading herpes are higher when symptoms are present, preventative measures are still vital for preventing transmission.

If you have herpes, two of the most important things you can do to avoid spreading it to your sexual partners are to use barrier methods and openly discuss your condition prior to sexual activity.

Using barrier methods

Using barrier methods like condoms and dental dams is essential for reducing the risk of transmitting herpes, as well as other sexually transmitted infections.

While these barriers do not provide 100% protection—since herpes can be spread by skin-to-skin contact—they significantly lower the risk.

Discussing herpes status with partners

Communication about herpes status is key to practicing safe sex. It is important to discuss your herpes status with potential sexual partners before initiating any sexual activity.

This conversation allows for informed consent and joint decision-making about the precautions necessary to reduce the risk of transmission.

Managing & reducing outbreaks

There are also several steps you can take to reduce the frequency and severity of herpes outbreaks, including several FDA-approved antiviral medications and adjustments to your lifestyle.

FDA-approved herpes medications

  • Acyclovir: Acyclovir is often prescribed for the treatment of herpes outbreaks due to its ability to suppress the replication of the herpes simplex virus, effectively reducing the duration and severity of symptoms.
  • Valacyclovir: Valacyclovir, a prodrug of acyclovir, is favored for its enhanced absorption and longer duration of action, making it effective in both managing outbreaks and reducing the frequency of recurrence.
  • Famciclovir: Famciclovir is used in the treatment of herpes virus infections, including shingles and genital herpes, and is known for its rapid onset of action in alleviating symptoms and limiting viral shedding.

These medications can also help reduce asymptomatic viral shedding, thereby decreasing the risk of transmission.

Lifestyle changes

Certain triggers can provoke herpes outbreaks, including

  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Fatigue
  • Exposure to sunlight
  • Specific foods

Identifying and avoiding these triggers can help reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet are also beneficial for maintaining a healthy immune system.

The emotional & psychological toll of herpes

Receiving a herpes diagnosis can be emotionally and psychologically challenging. It can affect self-esteem and pose difficulties in current or future relationships due to the stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections.

Seeking support for living with herpes

It’s important for individuals diagnosed with herpes to seek support, whether through counseling, therapy, or support groups.

These resources can provide emotional support and coping strategies, helping individuals navigate the personal and social challenges posed by the diagnosis. Engaging in open dialogue with therapists or counselors can also facilitate better communication with partners about the condition.

Find support for living with herpes from Lemonaid Health

Living with herpes can be difficult at times, but there are many ways to limit the impact this common condition has on your life. The more you know about herpes, the more steps you can take to manage it and prevent it from having a negative impact on your sexual health or that of your partners.

Our team at Lemonaid Health is ready to help. Our team of US-based medical practitioners can provide individualized treatment plans via discrete online consultations, as well as prescriptions and deliveries for FDA-approved medications if appropriate and clinically indicated.

Support for Cold Sores (HSV-1)

Support for Genital Herpes (HSV-2)

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2024, February 20). About Genital Herpes. Retrieved from 
  2. Koelle, D. M., Benedetti, J., Langenberg, A., & Corey, L. (1992). Asymptomatic reactivation of herpes simplex virus in women after the first episode of genital herpes. Annals of internal medicine, 116(6), 433–437. 
  3. Magaret, A. S., Mujugira, A., Hughes, J. P., Lingappa, J., Bukusi, E. A., DeBruyn, G., Delany-Moretlwe, S., Fife, K. H., Gray, G. E., Kapiga, S., Karita, E., Mugo, N. R., Rees, H., Ronald, A., Vwalika, B., Were, E., Celum, C., Wald, A., & Partners in Prevention HSV/HIV Transmission Study Team. (2016). Effect of Condom Use on Per-act HSV-2 Transmission Risk in HIV-1, HSV-2-discordant Couples. Clinical Infectious Diseases: An Official Publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 62(4), 456–461.
  4. Sadowski, L. A., Upadhyay, R., Greeley, Z. W., & Margulies, B. J. (2021). Current Drugs to Treat Infections with Herpes Simplex Viruses-1 and -2. Viruses, 13(7), 1228. Accessed April 30, 2024 at
  5. Whitley, R. J., & Hook, E. W. (2022). Shedding Patterns of Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Infections. JAMA.


Editorial Team


July 6, 2024

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment or medication.