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Illustration of herpes viral particles to represent herpes outbreak after sex

When Is It Safe to Have Sex After a Herpes Outbreak?

Medically reviewed on July 19, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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A common sexually transmitted disease (STD), herpes, affects an estimated 18.6 billion people in the United States, and 572,000 of those include cases of incident genital herpes, [1] the first outbreak of the herpes virus that often results in genital sores, itching, pain, and urinary discomfort.

Oral herpes is also relatively common. In fact, it is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of Americans have oral herpes.2 This virus often manifests as a cold sore or fever blister on the mouth area.

Once infected, people can have the virus for a lifetime. However, the virus isn’t always active. When dormant, in which no signs or symptoms of the virus will show, herpes transmission is lower than when the virus is active and individuals are symptomatic.

Those with oral or genital herpes must take precautions to avoid spreading the virus to their sexual partner(s), particularly during active episodes. [3] This includes using protection while the herpes infection is dormant and abstaining from any sexual activity during active episodes.

What Is Herpes?

Herpes is an STD that can be caused by two types of viruses: herpes simplex virus (HSV)-1 (type 1) and HSV-2 (type 2). There is no direct link between the two viruses.

A HSV-1 infection is the most common cause of oral herpes, which is spread through direct, physical contact with an infected person’s saliva, such as while kissing. [2] Those infected will experience a cold sore or fever blister around the mouth. However, HSV-1 may also infect the genital area, if an individual has received oral sex from someone who’s infected.

An HSV-2 infection is primarily associated with genital herpes, causing sores or blisters on or around the genital area, buttocks, or anal area. It may also affect the mouth area through oral-genital contact. [4]

Following the initial outbreak, both viruses can live in a dormant state in the nerve cells near the initial infection site.3 Dormancy can occur for many years and is typically asymptomatic. When the virus reactivates, herpes sores and blisters will reappear at the infection site. [3]

Since herpes is most often latent, many people who are infected do not know that they have the disease. Others may mistake herpes symptoms for pimples, ingrown hairs, or the flu. [5] However, even during its dormancy, herpes can still be passed to a sexual partner. [6] Once infected, the herpes virus stays in the body for life. [5]

The initial outbreak of herpes, characterized by herpes symptoms, is when individuals will experience itchy or painful sores and blisters on the: [5]

  • Vagina
  • Vulva
  • Cervix
  • Anus
  • Penis
  • Scrotum
  • Buttocks
  • Inner thighs
  • Mouth area

An HSV-2 infection is also known to cause flu-like symptoms, which can include: [5]

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Achiness
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen glands in the throat and pelvic area or under the arms

This first outbreak typically lasts two to four weeks. Then, the herpes blisters and sores will go away, and the virus will lie dormant. During the first year, symptomatic episodes are common and frequency often decreases throughout the years. Warning signs of flare-ups may include itching, burning, or tingling at the site of infection.

How to Have Sex Safely With Herpes

While there is no cure for it, there are ways to help prevent the spread of the virus during sexual contact with another person while living with herpes. When experiencing an outbreak, sex should be avoided altogether to avoid the transmission of infected cells.

So, when is it safe to have sex after a herpes outbreak? Once the sores or blisters disappear, it’s advised to wait at least seven days to ensure all visible sores, herpes lesions, or blisters have fully healed and the skin has returned to its normal state, indicating dormancy. [7]

Even when the disease is dormant, condoms should be used during intercourse. Although less likely, herpes can still be spread in its dormant stage. [7]

To further avoid the spread of the virus, it’s advised to avoid touching sores caused by herpes, as this can spread the virus to different parts of your body as well as to other people. If you do touch a sore, wash your hands with soap and water immediately to avoid the spread. [7]

Herpes Diagnosis and Medication

How to test for herpes? If you believe you’re showing signs of herpes, visit your healthcare provider immediately. Typically, a healthcare provider can identify the virus based on the sores and blisters observed on the body. They’ll then swab said blisters for testing to confirm the presence of the STD. [3]

Antiviral medication, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, is then prescribed to clear up herpes symptoms following the first episode of herpes. However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 will have recurrent episodes, in which the symptoms will reappear. Suppressive long-term tablets are given to individuals to help prevent future outbreaks. [8]

Consult With an Everlywell Professional

Both oral and genital herpes can cause painful blisters or sores on the genitals and mouth during the virus’ active stages. During this time, it’s not advised to participate in sex until the symptoms have disappeared for at least a week.

If you believe you have herpes or would like guidance after your herpes diagnosis, Everlywell provides STD treatment online. You’ll speak to a clinician within two hours, who can walk you through symptoms, diagnoses, and management of the herpes virus.

Book an appointment today.

  1. Spicknall IH, Flagg EW, Torrone EA. Estimates of the Prevalence and Incidence of Genital Herpes, United States, 2018. Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 2021;48(4):260-265. doi:https://doi.org/10.1097/olq.0000000000001375URL. Accessed July 18, 2023.
  2. Oral Herpes. www.hopkinsmedicine.org. URL.
  3. Genital herpes. www.nhsinform.scot. URL. Accessed July 18, 2023.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD Facts - Genital Herpes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published 2019.
  5. What Are the Symptoms & Signs of Herpes? www.plannedparenthood.org. URL. Accessed July 18, 2023.
  6. Herpes in Hiding. NIH News in Health. URL. Published July 11, 2017.
  7. I was just diagnosed with herpes? How can I have sex and not spread it? www.plannedparenthood.org. URL. Accessed July 18, 2023.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Herpes - STI Treatment Guidelines. URL. www.cdc.gov. Published July 22, 2021.
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