People living with herpes simplex virus (HSV) are more likely to contract HIV. Similarly, people living with HIV are more likely to contract HSV. But one does not cause the other.
HSV is a virus that can cause ulcerative skin disease, says reproductive health specialist Felice Gersh, MD, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness.”
HSV can cause episodic outbreaks of blisters. Open sores or breaks in the skin make it easier for other viruses to enter the body.
“Herpes can also alter the microbiome of the vagina and anus, which make them less adept at fighting off foreign invaders and pathogens,” says Gersh.
HIV is a virus that attacks your immune system. This affects your body’s ability to defend against other illnesses.
“Both HIV and HSV are sexually transmitted diseases, so having one does increase your risk of acquiring the other if you’re exposed,” explains Dr. Kimberly Langdon, a retired OB-GYN with 19 years of clinical experience.
Undiagnosed or untreated HIV can progress to AIDS, which is sometimes known as late-stage HIV, says Langdon.
While herpes is primarily transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, HIV can be transmitted via bodily fluids, says Gersh. “That means you can increase your risk of contracting HIV if you use or share needles, syringes, or other [unsterilized] drug equipment.”
These days, it’s rare for an individual who tests positive for HIV to ever develop AIDS, according to Gersh. “Modern HIV medicine is extraordinarily effective at managing the virus so that it doesn’t become AIDS,” she says.
As such, your risk of developing AIDS increases if you contract HIV and do not receive prompt medical treatment, says Monte Swarup, MD, OB-GYN, founder of the leading health information site Vaginal Health Hub.
There are also a number of home remedies and lifestyle changes that you can adapt that may help ease your symptoms and reduce your risk of an outbreak.
When your skin is free of lesions, you’re less likely to contract HIV should you come into contact with it.
“Another option for reducing the risk of contracting HIV, whether you have HSV or not, is to talk with your doctor about PrEP,” says Langdon.
Preexposure prophylaxis or PrEP is a daily oral medication that helps reduce your risk of contracting HIV, she explains.
If you’re living with HIV, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help. “ART can make the virus undetectable and restore immune function,” explains Gersh.
When HIV is undetectable, it can’t progress to AIDS, she says. You’re also less likely to contract HSV or another illness when your immune system is restored.
The best thing you can do to reduce your risk of HSV and HIV is to practice safer sex, says Swarup.
Common safer sex practices include:
- Using condoms and other barrier methods during all sexual activity.
- Staying up to date on your STI status.
- Talking with potential or current partners about their STI status.
- Abstaining from sexual activity with people who are currently experiencing an outbreak or who are not adhering to treatment for an STI or STD
- Discussing PrEP with a healthcare professional and beginning preventive treatment.
If there’s any chance that you’ve been exposed to HIV or another sexually transmitted condition, contact a healthcare professional to get tested.
This is particularly important if you develop any new or unusual symptoms associated with HIV, including:
If it’s been less than 72 hours (3 days) since potential HIV exposure, talk with a healthcare professional immediately.
They can prescribe postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) to help reduce the risk of infection. PEP must be started within 72 hours (3 days) to be effective. PEP medications are taken daily for 28 days.
People living with HSV are more likely to contract HIV and vice versa. However, there are a number of sexual health precautions you can take to help reduce the likelihood of coming into contact with either virus.
If you think you’ve been exposed to HSV or HIV, contact a healthcare professional to learn more.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.