There are literally millions of women in the U.S. who have the genital herpes virus—including many of us at midlife. Not everyone is aware that outbreaks can increase during menopause, which concerns not only women who’ve managed the virus within a relationship, but also those who may be considering a new relationship.
The most obvious reason for the increase in occurrences is that menopause may cause some stresses; as you probably know if you carry the virus, stress can trigger outbreaks. Also, aging makes genital tissue more delicate and prone to small cuts or tears that provide pathways for infection. Many more of us are single at this stage of life these days; if we’re sexually active with multiple partners, that can increase the rate of infection overall in our age group.
(By the way, herpes and other sexually transmitted infections are most commonly transmitted from men to women, but they can pass from woman to woman as well.)
Nothing yet makes genital herpes go away permanently. Symptoms can be controlled with medication, either taken daily to minimize the number of outbreaks or at the onset of an outbreak to limit its duration or intensity. If you’re currently taking meds, there’s no reason not to continue during menopause, even if you’re on hormones. If your medicine isn’t as effective as it was, talk to your doctor about upping the dosage or switching to another. If you’re experiencing more frequent outbreaks, you may want to consider the continuous daily approach.
Whether you’re single and contemplating intimacy or in a long-term relationship, there are some things you can do to avoid sharing this virus with your partner:
- Avoid sexual contact from the moment the symptoms first appear until the sores have completely healed.
- Don’t let embarrassment stop you from discussing your sexual history; it’s imperative that your partner be aware of your situation. (And vice-versa!)
- Prevent transfer of any bodily fluids to cuts or other openings.
- Use a condom for any kind of sex – oral, genital or anal.
- Keep fit and have regular physicals.
- Keep the infected area clean and dry.
- Don’t touch the sores. If you do have contact, wash your hands right away.
I’m happy to report, too, that researchers are vigorously exploring ways to protect women from the herpes virus and prevent it from spreading. One solution might be a herpes vaccine; other possibilities include gels and creams that could kill the virus before it has the chance to infect someone else.
But until scientists do come up with a more effective way to fight herpes, stay on your meds, manage your stress, be mindful, and stay healthy!
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten. Read more about and from her here.