The herpes simplex virus—or, as it’s more often known, herpes—is one of the most common viral infections in the world. There are two different types of the herpes simplex virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. According to data from the World Health Organization, more than 50% of all people under the age of 50 have the HSV-1 virus, while anywhere from one in 10 to one in six people are infected with HSV-2. In short, herpes is very common, so much so that many people are infected with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 without ever knowing. There’s a common misconception that certain people are “immune” to herpes that stems from the fact that not everyone infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2 will have visible symptoms. However, let us be clear: You cannot be immune to herpes. Even if you exhibit zero symptoms of the virus, you're still a carrier, and can still pass the virus to others.
When you hear the word “herpes,” what do you think of? For most of us, herpes is associated with painful sores, or lesions, that can form around the mouth, as well as similar sores that can form on or around the genitals.
These sores, which are called herpes lesions, are the most common and obvious symptom of herpes. However, not everyone that’s infected with herpes will develop sores, and even people that do develop them might not experience them for years at a time.
Because of this, some people might mistakenly believe that they’re immune to herpes even if they’re infected, just because they don’t have any visible side effects. These people are considered asymptomatic carriers.
In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the majority of people with herpes won’t ever experience any symptoms. This means that you’re more likely not to develop herpes sores than to develop them, even if you’re infected.
Even people with symptomatic herpes might feel as if they’ve become “immune” to the virus at certain times. This is because outbreaks aren’t always frequent, meaning you could go months or years without a herpes outbreak before suddenly experiencing one.
Interestingly, this is because your body literally does become more immune to the herpes virus over time. After an initial infection and outbreak, the body starts a complex immune response to the virus that, for some people, can make outbreaks less severe and frequent over time.
In short, even if you have HSV-1 or HSV-2, you might never experience any symptoms. And if you do, they might become more manageable over time. However, there are no guarantees of staying asymptomatic forever, meaning you should still be prepared for a herpes outbreak. Being asymptomatic doesn't mean HSV-1 or HSV-2 immunity, and because there is no HSV-1 vaccination or HSV-2 vaccination (as of now), once you have herpes, you have it for life.
Being asymptomatic certainly makes living with herpes easier (particularly if you have HSV-2), but it doesn’t mean that you can’t also spread the virus to other people.
While asymptomatic people are less likely to spread herpes than people with visible symptoms such as an ongoing herpes outbreak, you can still spread herpes through a process known as asymptomatic shedding.
Asymptomatic shedding is when your body continues to produce the herpes virus without any visible symptoms. Even though you may not have visible herpes sores on your lips or genitals, your body could still be actively producing (and potentially spreading) the virus.
Asymptomatic shedding is particularly common in the period just after you’re infected with the herpes virus. In people with HSV-2, shedding can occur on 20% to 40% of days in the first six months after infection.
Studies show that while asymptomatic shedding usually slows down over time, it still typically occurs on 5% to 20% of days even in longer-term herpes infections.
Since HSV-1 and HSV-2 are both incurable, this means that you need to be aware of the risk of transmitting herpes to your sexual partners even if you don’t have any symptoms. Our guide to how herpes is transmitted goes into more detail about this, as well as prevention methods.
Current scientific research shows that herpes is highly contagious and that everyone is at risk of infection. It’s also extremely common, infecting anywhere from more than 50% of people (in the case of HSV-1) to around 11% of people (in the case of HSV-2).
The good news is that, while there is no HSV-2 or HSV-1 vaccination, and while there's no such thing as HSV-1 or HSV-2 immunity, herpes is one of the easiest viruses to treat, with several highly effective medications available to help reduce the effects of herpes and speed up the healing process if you develop cold sores or genital herpes lesions.
Worried you might have herpes? Your best bet is to talk to your doctor about the symptoms you're experiencing. If they can't give a physical confirmation that you're a carrier, they'll be able to point you in the right direction about seeking a herpes test.
You can also learn more about herpes treatment options in our guide to valacyclovir (Valtrex), a widely used medication that controls herpes outbreaks and reduces your risk of transmitting the virus to other people.