Using condoms consistently can help prevent people from contracting genital herpes, new research in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows.

It's the consistent use of the condom that's important, Dr. Emily T. Martin of Children's Hospital Research Institute and the University of Washington, Seattle, the study's lead researcher, told Reuters Health.

Genital herpes is caused by infection with herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2). The infection can cause painful sores in the genital area. Treatment for outbreaks and long-term suppression of the virus is available, but once a person contracts HSV-2 they will carry it for life.

While the benefits of condom use for preventing the spread of HIV infection , Chlamydia, gonorrhea and other STDs is well established, evidence on whether condoms are an effective barrier against HSV-2 virus has been mixed, Martin and her team note.

The researchers combined data from six different studies of HSV-2 incidence and condom use, including 5,384 people in total, to provide a more definitive answer. All study participants were free of HSV-2 infection when the studies began. During follow-up, which averaged just over a year, 415 contracted genital herpes.

People who reported always using condoms were 30 percent less likely to contract the infection than people who didn't use condoms, Martin and her team found, while the risk of becoming infected rose steadily with the number of unprotected sex acts.

Condoms are only partly protective, the researcher noted, because HSV-2 can spread by skin-to-skin contact, which could occur in areas not covered by the condom. Also, she pointed out, even when people with genital herpes don't have a visible outbreak of infection, they may be able to infect others with the virus.

Nevertheless, Martin added, 30 percent is partial protection, but it's protection.

SOURCE: Archives of Internal Medicine, July 13, 2009.