Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, DNP, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/4/2020
Herpes is one of the most common viral infections in the world. In fact, according to recent data from the World Health Organization, if you’re under the age of 50, you’re statistically more likely to have herpes than not.
However, just how common is herpes?
In this guide, we’ll look at how common HSV-1 and HSV-2—the two major types of herpes—are in adults throughout the developed world.
We’ll also look at how easy it is to treat herpes and live a normal sexual and social life if you have an HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection.
Before we cover specific herpes statistics, it’s important to explain the different types of herpes and how they each affect the body.
Herpes simplex virus type 1, better known as HSV-1, is the most common form of herpes. It’s usually referred to as “cold sores” and it typically affects the lips, gums and other areas of the face around the mouth.
HSV-1 is extremely common. In fact, according to current data, more people around the world have it than not. Some people get outbreaks relatively consistently, while others experience one every year, while others are completely asymptomatic and never experience an outbreak at all.
HSV-2, on the other hand, is less prevalent but still common. This type of herpes usually results in herpes lesions on the genitals—the scary but far from uncommon genital herpes that many people think of when they hear the word “herpes.”
Both forms of herpes are incurable, meaning that if the virus is transmitted to you, you’ll have it for life or until a long-term cure is discovered.
However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are easy to treat and manage, meaning there’s little to fear about finding out about a herpes infection.
Our HSV-1 vs. HSV-2 guide goes into far more detail about these two strains of the herpes virus, how they're similar and how they're different.
HSV-1 is a very common virus. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 3.7 billion people aged 50 or under are infected by HSV-1, which amounts to around 67 percent of the global population within this age group.
HSV-1 is a common virus in both developed and developing countries. Most people infected with HSV-1 acquire it during childhood or young adulthood, with the typical age of acquisition ranging from five to nine years of age in Central Europe to 25+ in Northern Europe.
Rates of HSV-1 infection are highest in Africa, where WHO data estimates an 87 percent infection rate, and lowest in the Americas, where the infection rate is estimated at 40 percent to 50 percent.
Interestingly, women are slightly more likely to have HSV-1 than men (based on a European study of oral herpes seroepidemiology), although the virus is very common in both sexes.
Simply put, HSV-1 is extremely common. The majority of the world’s population—particularly people aged 50 or below—have HSV-1, with most people experiencing few or no outbreaks despite being infected.
This means that if you have HSV-1, there’s no reason to panic. It’s a common virus that most people live with, and its effects are easy to control using widely available, affordable antiviral medication—like valacyclovir.
HSV-2 is less common than HSV-1, but still affects a significant number of people. Survey data from the World Health Organization shows that an estimated 13 percent of people worldwide aged 15 to 49 worldwide have HSV-2 infection, or approximately 491 million people in total.
Rates of HSV-2 infection are slightly higher than the WHO statistics in the United States, where Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that approximately 16.2 percent of people aged 14-49 are estimated to be infected.
Like HSV-1, HSV-2 infection is more common in women (who have a 20.9 percent infection rate) than men (11.5 percent). This difference in HSV-2 infection rate between men and women is likely because the virus is more easily transmitted from men to women through sexual activity than vice-versa.
Unlike HSV-1, which is typically transmitted through oral contact (such as kissing), HSV-2 tends to be transmitted through sexual contact. Like HSV-1, most infections of HSV-2 do not produce any visible symptoms, meaning many people with HSV-2 are unaware that they’re infected.
There is no cure for HSV-1 or HSV-2, meaning you’ll remain infected for life (or until a cure is discovered). However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are extremely easy to treat and manage using antiviral medication such as valacyclovir.
Valacyclovir, which is also known as Valtrex®, works by stopping the growth of the herpes virus within the body. Used before an outbreak of oral or genital herpes, it can speed up the rate at which your body recovers and make the effects of the outbreak less severe.
Many people never experience outbreaks from oral or genital herpes even if infected, meaning medication isn’t always essential if you’ve been diagnosed with HSV-1 or HSV-2.
Valacyclovir also reduces the risk of you transmitting genital herpes to a sexual partner by a significant amount. Our guide to how herpes is transmitted goes into more detail on how valacyclovir can be used to have safer sex if you have genital herpes.
Using medications like valacyclovir, the vast majority of people with herpes can have normal, healthy sexual and social lives, even with the more “severe” HSV-2 infection type.
As such, a herpes infection doesn’t need to be something that negatively affects your sex life.
Basically—and unfortunately—the question, "How common is herpes?" can be answered in one word: Very.
Luckily, the viruses in most of their forms and functions are exceptionally manageable and don't have to have a negative impact on your life. Interested in learning more about how you can treat herpes?
Our Valacyclovir 101 guide covers everything you need to know about valacyclovir (Valtrex), which is used to treat and control both HSV-1 and HSV-2.
If you’re worried you might have herpes, you should seek advice from a trained medical professional. Your healthcare provider may advise taking a herpes test. We’ve also covered some of the most common herpes myths, with factual data on how herpes spreads and develops in our non-sexually transmitted herpes guide.
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