In addition to lowering your risk of a number of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, research shows consistent condom use can also protect against the virus that causes genital herpes.
In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a team of researchers that included experts at the University of Washington in Seattle followed more than 1,800 adults to compare rates of condom use to rates of contracting genital herpes.
Genital herpes is a highly-contagious sexually transmitted disease usually caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-2). It can result in painful or itchy sores in the genital area. Often, however, genital herpes causes no symptoms at all, so many don't know they are infected.
Genital herpes can be passed on even during times when no symptoms are present, and though condoms have long been touted as a means of protection against transmission, until now, their effectiveness has been unclear. That's because the HSV-2 virus is often present on the skin around the genitals, an area condoms don't cover.
There is no cure for genital herpes, though there are medications that can help to control flare-ups.
Participants in the study had been enrolled in a previous study testing a genital herpes vaccine and were considered to be at risk for contracting genital herpes, either because they reported four or more sexual partners or because they had contracted at least one sexually transmitted disease within the previous year.
Participants were followed for a year and a half, over the course of which they were evaluated on 11 different occasions. At each evaluation, participants had a blood test checking for HSV-2. They were also asked about their sexual activity, including frequency of sexual activity, number of partners and condom use, and were counselled about safe sex and offered condoms.
Over the course of the study, the rate of sexual activity declined from 2.2 to 1.7 times per week, on average. 40% of participants reported using condoms 25% of time or less, including 12% who said they never used condoms. At the other end of the spectrum, 29% reported using condoms 75% of the time or more, with 13% saying they always used condoms.
Almost 120 of the study participants, or 6.4%, contracted HSV-2 over the course of the study, including 8% of those who said they never used condoms and 5% of those who said they always used condoms.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that for both men and women, using condoms at least 75% of the time was associated with a reduction in risk by almost one-quarter compared to using condoms between 25% and 50% of the time and by about 50% compared to using condoms 25% of the time or less. And, noting that people may be more likely to say they use condoms than to actually use them or that improper use of condoms can decrease their effectiveness, the researchers note that the risk reduction may be even higher.
"Condom use was substantially and significantly associated with lower rates of acquisition," write the researchers. "Although some participants became infected with HSV-2 despite using condoms, the risk for transmission was substantially reduced with more frequent condom use."
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