If a person has herpes, it is important that they disclose it to any potential sexual partners. This can establish a healthy relationship, build trust, and reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to others.

Herpes is a common infection that develops as a result of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes virus: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2).

Herpes can spread through bodily fluids and can cause sores or blisters around the mouth or genitals.

If a person has herpes, it is important that they know the facts about the condition and inform potential sexual partners that treatments and prevention methods can help reduce transmission.

This article looks at tips for how and when a person can tell someone they have herpes, as well as tips for having a sexual relationship when someone has herpes.

Two people holding hands during a conversation about herpes.Share on Pinterest
Nataša Mandić/Stocksy

The laws around disclosing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may vary state by state in the United States. Not disclosing herpes may be unlawful in some states, while other states may not have criminal statutes around this.

According to law firms, under tort law — which relates to any action or negligence that causes harm to another person — a person may be able to sue a sexual partner for not disclosing an STI they were aware of.

In many cases, people may not be aware that they have herpes because they have not had an active outbreak. People may also contract herpes through nonsexual contact. Therefore, it may be difficult to pursue legal action.

Although the law may not require that a person disclose a herpes diagnosis to potential sexual partners, Planned Parenthood states that it is important for a person to tell partners if they have herpes to help prevent transmission.

The following tips may help people in telling a potential sexual partner that they have herpes:

Prepare what to say

If a person is feeling nervous about telling a potential sexual partner, it may help to imagine or practice what they want to say first.

This may help the person feel more confident and relaxed when telling a partner.

Choose the right time and place

Find somewhere quiet, without distractions, so that people can give their full attention and can speak without interruption.

Speak matter-of-factly

Speak in a calm, matter-of-fact manner and avoid apologizing or using negative language. Remember that herpes is common and does not cause serious health problems.

Assuming that a partner will maintain a calm, positive demeanor may help people deliver the facts in a straightforward way.

Know the facts

State the facts in a clear, simple way. People may have heard various myths or misinformation about herpes, which they may find confusing or alarming.

Letting a partner know the facts can help them understand that herpes is a common condition and that treatments and prevention methods are available.

Allow them time to process the information

Realize that people may respond in different ways and allow them time to process the information.

Avoid getting defensive. Allow a person to take time on their own to look into research if they want to.

Recommend testing

It is important for a person to test for herpes once they find out a sexual partner has herpes.

If only one person tests positive, people can then discuss how to prevent passing herpes to the other person.

HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes. This means that the virus lives in or around the lips, mouth, and throat.

HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes, which is when the virus is present on or around the genitals. This can include the:

  • vulva
  • vagina
  • cervix
  • penis
  • anus
  • scrotum

However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can infect either area.

Planned Parenthood states that a person can transmit HSV-1 to another person’s genitals if they have a cold sore and perform oral sex. A person can also contract HSV-2 in their mouth if they perform oral sex on a person who has HSV-2 on their genitals.

People may wish to disclose that they have herpes before there is a chance of transmitting it to a sexual partner through activities such as:

  • skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex
  • non-penetrative genital-to-genital contact
  • rimming
  • kissing

Learn more about HSV-2 and oral sex here.

Genital herpes is very common, affecting around 1 in 6 people in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), herpes affects 11.9% of those aged 14–49.

There are two types of HSV, the virus that causes herpes:

  • HSV-1: HSV-1 is mostly transmitted orally, through contact with saliva. It usually causes oral herpes, which includes cold sores, but can also cause genital herpes.
  • HSV-2: HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes, but it can also cause oral herpes.

A person can contract herpes through contact with:

  • a herpes sore or blister
  • saliva from a person with oral herpes
  • genital fluids from a person with genital herpes
  • skin in the area of the mouth or genitals of a person with oral or genital herpes

People may contract oral herpes during childhood or early adulthood through saliva from nonsexual contact.

Many people with herpes may not have any symptoms, so they may not be aware that they have the infection. The American Sexual Health Association states that up to 90% of people who have herpes are not aware of it.

Herpes is an opportunistic infection, which means it can lie dormant, without an obvious outbreak, until a person experiences an event such as another viral infection or increased stress. This event may cause the herpes infection to show symptoms, such as an itching, tingling, or burning sensation followed by a herpes lesion on the skin.

Herpes symptoms may not appear for days or even years after a person contracts the infection. This makes it difficult to know when people got the infection and where it came from.

If a person has a herpes infection, people can reduce the risk of passing it to a sexual partner by:

  • avoiding vaginal, anal, or oral sex during an outbreak, which is when symptoms are present and the virus is more likely to transmit, even if people use barrier methods such as condoms
  • avoiding any type of sexual activity if people experience signs of an outbreak, such as itching, tingling, or burning sensations
  • waiting until any sores have fully healed and scabs have fallen off before having sex
  • avoiding kissing anyone when a cold sore is present
  • avoiding touching sores, as this can spread the virus to other areas of the body or other people
  • always using condoms and dental dams during vaginal, oral, and anal sex, even when an outbreak is not present
  • talking with a healthcare professional about taking daily antiviral medication, which can reduce the risk of transmitting herpes

If people want to have sex without a barrier method or want to become pregnant, taking antiviral medication may be more than 90% effective at preventing the spread of symptomatic herpes to a person without the infection.

Herpes is common and can cause sores or blisters on the genitals or around the mouth. Herpes does not always cause symptoms, so people may not realize that they have it.

Herpes can transmit to other people through bodily fluids. If a person has herpes, it is important that they tell a potential sexual partner before having any sexual contact.

Using condoms and dental dams, avoiding sexual contact during a herpes outbreak, and taking antiviral medication can help a person avoid passing herpes to a sexual partner.