How to Prevent Genital Herpes

Dr Kathryn Basford

Medically reviewed by

Dr Kathryn Basford

Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2019

Preventing herpes outbreaks and infection


Key takeaways

  • Genital Herpes is one of the most common STDs in the world

  • Using protection like condoms during sex can help prevent you catching the infection in the first place

  • Outbreaks tend to occur when your immune system is weakened, for example due to illness or stress

  • Avoiding triggers and keeping healthy are important in order to avoid recurrent bouts

Genital herpes is a very common sexually transmitted infection. You can prevent catching genital herpes by using a condom every time you have sex, including oral and anal sex. Condoms are not 100% effective in preventing herpes but they lower your risk of contracting the virus considerably.

If you’ve already been infected with the herpes virus, then you need to know how to prevent future herpes outbreaks. This involves adopting the right diet and lifestyle habits to boost your immune system. We will review them in this article and provide further information on the possible complications of genital herpes. If you're worried you might be infected, check out our signs of genital herpes article.

What can I do to prevent genital herpes infection?

To try to reduce the chance of getting genital herpes, it’s important that you use condoms for any sexual contact – including oral sex. You should also avoid any contact with infected blisters or ulcers that contain the virus. This should include not touching infected genitals with your hand.

You should avoid sharing sex-toys too, and wash your hands thoroughly if you’ve touched any blisters. The virus is most contagious when an outbreak is visible.

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How common is genital herpes?

Genital herpes tends to be slightly more common in women than in men, with about 60% of new infections being diagnosed in females. Every year, GUM (Genitourinary Medicine, or sexual health) clinics in England record around 30,000 new infections. GUM clinics are the most commonly used service for testing for genital herpes, and can provide expert advice on what else to test for and how to deal with an infection. You can also use a home test kit to see if you have genital herpes.

The herpes virus is one of the most common STDs in the world, carried by an estimated 1-2 billion people. In many cases, patients don’t suffer from any symptoms but carry the virus and can infect sexual partners nonetheless. Some patients suffer a number of outbreaks at some point in their lives, followed by many years without any symptoms. However, they will still be shedding the virus during times without symptoms.

How to stop genital herpes outbreaks

People with weak immune systems tend to get more frequent herpes outbreaks. In order to reduce the number of unpleasant outbreaks, you should look after your health and boost your immune system. Eating a healthy diet of plenty of fruits and veggies will help you maintain strong immune system. Some studies suggest that a diet rich in lysine might help prevent chronic genital herpes outbreaks and reduce the severity of recurrent flare-ups. Foods high in L-lysine include beans, peas, lentils as well as meat, cheese, nuts and eggs.

Another factor known to triggers herpes outbreaks (genital or not) is stress. This is valid for both physical (e.g. illness, tiredness) and mental stress. Anything which helps you reduce stress will help you reduce the occurrence of future outbreaks of genital herpes.

It is important that you look after yourself well and that you limit exposure to sunlight too, since ultraviolet rays tend to trigger genital herpes. Women should pay extra attention during their period, as this is a time when they may be more prone to genital herpes outbreaks.

The type of underwear you wear can also have an impact on how many outbreaks you suffer. Use 100% cotton underwear which fits loosely without irritating the skin around your genitals.

Complications of genital herpes

Complications of genital herpes are rather rare. However, some complications have been reported. In some cases, the infection can spread to other parts of the body for example to the liver and the eyes, or even to the lining around the brain (causing meningitis). This happens mostly in people with a weak immune system, who have had the virus for a very long time. In people with a weak immune system, herpes can increase the risk of bacterial infections, which can lead to further complications.

Another possible complication affects pregnant women. During childbirth, women can pass the virus to their newborn. Women at risk of STIs are often tested in the first weeks of pregnancy to prevent unexpected complications.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Kathryn Basford

Dr Kathryn Basford is a qualified GP who works as a GP in London, as well as with ZAVA. She graduated from the University of Manchester and completed her GP training through Whipps Cross Hospital in London.

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Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2019

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