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If you have herpes, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans have it. Herpes has no cure. But you can control it and learn how to protect yourself and others from outbreaks.

What is herpes?

Herpes is a chronic (lifelong) virus. It can cause sores and discomfort. You get it from contact with someone who carries the virus. If sores occur on the lips, you have oral herpes. If sores occur on the penis or around the vagina, you have genital herpes.

Herpes outbreaks

  • The first outbreak of herpes sores is usually the most severe. Then, the soldiers of the body’s immune system, white blood cells, produce antibodies. These antibodies help neutralize the herpes virus and may help make future attacks less severe.

  • Some people have only one outbreak of sores. Some people have periods of frequent outbreaks (every few weeks). Outbreaks of herpes sores usually happen less often over time.

  • Herpes sores may appear without a cause. Outbreaks are more likely when the immune system is weak. Other viral infections (such as a cold) can cause outbreaks. Stress from a poor diet, fatigue, or emotional upset can lead to outbreaks of sores. Exposure to strong sunlight often causes herpes sores to reappear. 

To help prevent outbreaks

  • To prevent oral herpes outbreaks, avoid overexposure to wind, sun, and extreme temperatures. Use sunscreen and lip balm on affected areas.

  • If you are having frequent outbreaks, ask your healthcare provider about medicines that can help prevent outbreaks.

How herpes spreads to others

Herpes can be spread during an outbreak. But even without sores present, you can still “shed” the virus and infect others. You can take steps to prevent this.

To protect yourself and others

  • If you have an oral sore, avoid kissing and oral-genital contact.

  • If you have a genital sore, avoid intercourse. Also avoid oral-genital contact.

  • Wash your hands after touching a sore.

  • Use a condom each time you have sex. You can pass the virus even when sores aren’t present. If you’re unsure about the timing of certain kinds of physical contact, ask your health care provider.

  • Tell any new partners that you have herpes.

  • If you’re a woman, have Pap tests as often as your healthcare provider recommends.

  • A woman can spread herpes to their newborn during the birth process, whether or not they have an active genital sore. If pregnant, don't forget to tell your healthcare provider early in the pregnancy. 

  • In some cases, daily antiviral medicine (acyclovir, famcyclovir, or valavyclovir), in addition to consistent condom use, may reduce your chances of spreading herpes to an uninfected partner. Ask your healthcare provider if this medicine would be helpful for you.


American Social Health Association STD Hotline  919-361-8488  www.ashastd.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  800-232-4636  www.cdc.gov/std

© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.