Herpes info for lesbians
Originally Published: December 4, 1998 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: February 5, 2010
(1) Dear Alice,
All the information I have found about herpes is written for heterosexual couples. Are there studies about herpes in lesbians? How can I prevent transmission of the virus to my partner? I'm totally asymptomatic.
I'm female, in a relationship with another female. She is okay with the fact that I have herpes. I JUST NEED TO KNOW HOW TO PROTECT HER from contracting the virus. Please help me out here.
Dear Lesbian and Reader #2,
One of the most important steps you can take to protect your partner from contracting herpes is to tell her that you have herpes. By being open and honest, the two of you can communicate about what risks you are, and are not, willing to take together. It will also allow her to learn about herpes — both from the perspective of protecting herself, as well as discovering what your experiences with the virus have been. Not only will this help you protect your partner, it may also help you develop a stronger and more open relationship.
Strategies for preventing herpes transmission really boil down to preventing contact with infected areas of skin; this holds true for any intimate partners, regardless of gender. The herpes virus is spread via direct skin-to-skin contact both when the virus is active (sores are present) and possibly when an infected person has no visible sores (a process known as viral shedding). Prior to an outbreak of herpes, most people notice an itching or tingling sensation. This can become a good warning that an outbreak is imminent and that you and your partner should avoid touching the area where sores normally appear. Unfortunately, herpes is a tricky virus and can spread even when you don't have sores other symptoms. For this reason, many partners practice safer sex every time (think barriers that cover the skin where sores normally occur).
For women who sleep with women (and everyone else), the first step in preventing transmission is to avoid contact with infected areas of skin, whether on the mouth, vulva, thighs, butt, or elsewhere, when sores are present. Sores contain high quantities of the virus and touching the sores is painful for many people. People who have herpes can talk with a health care provider about medications that can help control outbreaks. These viral suppressive medications are also believed to help reduce the risk of viral shedding, providing outbreak relief and partner protection.
To prevent transmitting the virus, the person with herpes should cover the area where sores normally appear. You can use a dental dam (or non-lubed condom that you cut down the middle and spread open) to cover the vagina, clitoris, anus, or what have you. If penetration is occurring (with fingers, sex toys, etc.) cover the object with a condom, medical glove, or other barrier that fits the object. In a pinch or if latex causes either of you irritation, non-microwavable plastic wrap can also serve as a barrier.
Consider where most of your herpes episodes occur. On your mouth in the form of cold sores? On your inner thighs? On some part of your genitals? Covering the most likely sites for sores will help prevent spreading the herpes virus. You may also want to check out the ASHA Herpes Resource Center website for more information.
You and your partner may decide to use barriers, avoid intimate contact when you believe the herpes virus is present on the surface of your skin, take viral suppressive medication, or a combination of these approaches. Whatever the decision, it's good to make it together, recognizing the risks involved and sharing the pleasures.