Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/12/2020
What is herpes, and how is herpes transmitted? Those are the questions on the menu today, and as usual, we're here with answers. Herpes is a contagious virus that’s transmitted in a variety of ways, from kissing to direct sexual contact. It’s also one of the most common viral infections, affecting up to 67% of people aged 14-49 in the United States (HSV-1) and 16% of all adults (HSV-2).
Although herpes infection rates are declining, it’s still an extremely common virus. Part of this is due to the ease at which herpes can be transmitted from one person to another through normal activity that most of us don’t think of as risky.
In this guide, we'll discuss how HSV-1 and HSV-2 can spread from one person to others, and share simple precautions that you can take to reduce your risk of exposure to herpes from friends, family members and sexual partners.
There are two different types of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. The two viruses are both lifelong, incurable infections (as of today, at least) and both can spread easily between individuals.
HSV-1 primarily causes cold sores that affect the mouth and lips (oral herpes). It’s commonly spread through oral contact between people, such as kissing or sharing certain items without providing enough time for the virus to die from air exposure.
HSV-1 can also be spread through sexual contact, such as through oral sex, in which case it can cause genital herpes. You can learn more in our guide on Can You Get Herpes From Oral Sex?
HSV-2 is a sexually transmitted infection that’s spread through sexual contact, typically through vaginal or anal sex. However, HSV-2 can also spread to the mouth through oral sex, resulting in oral herpes. It's a very rare occurrence, but it does happen.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 also remain dormant in different parts of the body. HSV-1 typically remains dormant in the trigeminal nerve near the jaw, whereas HSV-2 stays dormant in the lower area of the spine.
HSV-1 spreads through contact with secretions from oral sores. If a person with HSV-1 sores comes into contact with another person—for example, via saliva from kissing or sharing the same glass, utensil or toothbrush—there’s a risk of transmission.
It’s also possible for HSV-1 to spread through oral sex, during which secretions from an oral herpes sore on the lips, gums or tongue comes into contact with the penis or vagina.
HSV-1 can be spread from an infected person to a non-infected person even if the infected person doesn’t have visible sores, making it possible to transmit the virus even without an outbreak.
Unlike HSV-1, which can be spread through oral contact with another person, HSV-2 is usually only spread through genital contact.
For example, if a person with HSV-2 has unprotected sex with a non-infected person, there’s a risk of the virus being transmitted into the non-infected person through genital contact. Just like HSV-1, HSV-2 can be transmitted even if the infected person doesn’t have visible herpes sores.
HSV-2 can also be transmitted through oral sex, although this is less common than contraction from genital contact.
Because herpes (particularly HSV-1) is so common, millions of new people are infected with the virus every year. Often, new infections are asymptomatic, meaning you might not know that you have been infected for months or years after contact with the person responsible.
If you do contract herpes, particularly HSV-1, it’s important to remember that it’s a very common virus. It’s also easily treatable, with a wide range of highly effective medications available in the event you have an outbreak.
With this said, there are several ways to lower your risk of contracting herpes, particularly HSV-2 (genital herpes):
Avoid risky sexual behavior, such as having sex with multiple partners without the use of protection.
If you want to have unprotected sex with your partner, ask them about their HSV-2 status and, if required, consider asking them to see a physician about getting a herpes test.
If you’re not sure about your sexual partner’s HSV-2 status, use a condom to cover up the potentially infected area and reduce (but not completely prevent) the risk of HSV-2 transmission.
Avoid sexual activity with people that have visible sores on their mouth or genitals, such as lesions that resemble small bumps or pimples.
Herpes is one of the most common viral infections in the world. HSV-2, which is the main cause of genital herpes, is also by far one of the most widespread sexually transmitted diseases in the United States.
Because of this, it’s understandable to be worried about herpes if you’ve had unprotected sex recently, or if you’ve noticed lesions or sores on your genitals. In some cases, herpes can be asymptomatic, meaning you may not have any physical herpes symptoms even if you’re infected.
Our guide on how to stop a cold sore in the early stages covers the most common herpes symptoms to help you identify whether or not you may be infected. You can also contact your doctor about getting a herpes test to verify the presence of the virus.