Herpes is one of the most common viral infections, with more than half of all people under 50 years of age infected with the HSV-1 type of herpes and an estimated 11% of people infected with the HSV-2 type of the virus, according to WHO data. One of the most common herpes-related questions is whether or not it’s possible to be infected with the herpes virus without ever experiencing any symptoms. Unfortunately, that's a thing, and it's called asymptomatic herpes. In fact, it's a major thing.
While most people associate herpes with cold sores on the lips and mouth or herpes lesions on the genitals, the reality is that most people infected with the herpes simplex virus won’t get any symptoms.
This means that not only is it possible to have herpes without symptoms, but it's actually very common. Below, we’ll explain how often herpes results in asymptomatic infections (infection without any noticeable herpes symptoms), how asymptomatic viral shedding occurs, and the best options for testing whether or not you have herpes.
The symptoms of herpes generally occur in two waves—an initial outbreak, which occurs after the virus incubates in the body, and subsequent outbreaks.
Initial herpes outbreaks typically involve an itching and burning around the genitals (in the case of genital herpes), or around the mouth (in the case of oral herpes). Within a day or so, blisters can form in the affected area and develop into open, fluid-filled sores.
During an initial herpes outbreak, it’s common to experience headaches, muscle pains, fatigue and other flu-like symptoms. Many people also experience pain while urinating.
Recurring herpes outbreaks are similar, but are usually less severe than the initial outbreak. In people with HSV-2, outbreaks can occur up to five times a year, requiring two to three weeks to pass. People with HSV-1 typically experience one to two outbreaks per year, but that frequently varies drastically person to person.
Our guide to stopping a cold sore in the early stages goes into more detail about the typical symptoms of a herpes outbreak, as well as the triggers that can cause an outbreak to develop.
Not everyone with herpes will experience the symptoms listed above. In fact, between 75% and 90% of people with genital herpes aren’t even aware that they’re infected with the virus, as they never develop visible herpes sores.
As well as genital herpes, it’s also possible to catch oral herpes without experiencing symptoms of the virus. Simply put, it’s more common not to experience any symptoms of herpes than it is to have a symptomatic infection.
This has led to a common misconception that it’s possible to be “immune” to herpes—one that we’ve debunked thoroughly here.
While people with asymptomatic herpes infections may not experience any symptoms, they can still spread the virus to other people through oral-to-oral or sexual contact. While the risk of virus transmission is lower in asymptomatic people, “shedding episodes” can still occur. And for the record, there's no "How to prevent viral shedding" guide here, because it doesn't exist. There's always a chance of viral shedding, even if you're an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.
Our guide to how herpes is transmitted covers the herpes transmission risk in more detail, with scientific study data on how transmission rates differ between symptomatic and asymptomatic cases of the virus.
If you have no herpes symptoms but believe you might have been exposed to the virus, you can take a herpes test to verify whether or not you’re infected.
The most accurate herpes testing method for asymptomatic people is an IgG test, which checks for the presence of IgG antibodies in your blood. These antibodies can signal a herpes infection; using certain testing methods, they can also be used to differentiate between HSV-1 and HSV-2.
IgG antibodies can take several months to form after a herpes infection, meaning you’ll typically need to wait for 12 to 16 weeks before taking an IgG test to make sure you receive an accurate result.
If you’re concerned that you might have asymptomatic herpes, the best approach is to speak to your doctor about testing options. Your doctor will be able to schedule a test based on the date of your potential exposure to the virus and provide you with an accurate diagnosis. If you discover you do have HSV-1 or HSV-2, the most important thing is to not panic. These viruses are extremely common, and there are a variety of anti-viral medications out there to help minimize the severity and requency of outbreaks. Most notably, vacyclovir.