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Genital herpes: What you should know about sex and pregnancy

People diagnosed with genital herpes often want to know if they can have:

  • Sex

  • Healthy children

The answer to both questions is “yes,” but you’ll need to take some precautions.

Women with genital herpes can have healthy children. If you have genital herpes, precautions can help prevent your baby from getting the virus.

Hispanic mother hugging baby

How to prevent spreading herpes to your partner

If you have genital herpes and your partner doesn’t, you can spread the virus that causes it to your partner during sex. For this reason, dermatologists recommend the following:

Tell your partner you have genital herpes

Explain that there is a risk that you can give your partner the virus that causes genital herpes. Be sure your partner knows that the following can reduce this risk:

  • Skipping sex when you have sores. To avoid giving your partner genital herpes, it’s recommended that you skip all sexual contact while you have sores and for one or two days after the sores clear. If your partner’s skin or genitals touches a herpes sore, your partner can easily catch the virus.

  • Using a condom when you’re free of sores. Even when you don’t have sores, it’s possible to spread the virus to your partner. When the virus isn’t active, it travels from your skin (or genitals) to nearby nerve cells.

    A trigger can wake up this virus at any time. Common triggers include stress, illness, and surgery. If the virus wakes up, it travels back to your skin (or genitals).

    Sometimes, when the virus wakes up, you won’t have any sores or symptoms. During these times, you won’t even know that the virus is on your skin (or genitals). It’s during these times that you can spread it to your partner. Condoms help reduce this risk.

Taking an antiviral medicine every day can also reduce the risk of spreading the virus to your partner. Research shows that if one partner in a relationship has genital herpes and takes an antiviral medicine every day, the medicine can reduce the risk of spreading the virus to the other partner. This research study looked at heterosexual couples who had healthy immune systems.

Even when taking an antiviral every day, a condom must be used every time you have sex.

If taking an antiviral every day interests you, you should talk with your primary care doctor or dermatologist. Women may want to see their OB/GYN.

How genital herpes can affect your pregnancy

If you have genital herpes, it’s possible to spread the virus to your baby. A woman can spread it to her baby while she is:

  • Pregnant

  • Giving birth

  • Taking care of her newborn

If the baby gets the virus while in the womb, the mother may have a miscarriage or deliver the baby too early, causing the baby to be premature.

When the baby catches the virus during birth or shortly thereafter, this can be deadly for the baby. Be sure your OB/GYN knows that you have genital herpes so that precautions can be taken.

What to tell your OB/GYN

It’s vital for your OB/GYN to know if you:

  • Have genital herpes, even if you haven’t had sores or symptoms for a long time

  • Don’t have genital herpes but are having sex with someone who does

Taking precautions can prevent your baby from getting the virus.

Living with genital herpes

While there is currently no cure for genital herpes, medicine and self-care can reduce outbreaks.

Related AAD resources

Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control. “Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed).” Last accessed December 19, 2016.

Madkan V Sra K, et al. “Human herpesviruses.” In: Bolognia JL, et al. Dermatology. (second edition). Mosby Elsevier, Spain, 2008:1075-6.

Marques AR, Straus SE, “Herpes simplex.” In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2008: 1199-1204.