Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/27/2018
Herpes is one of the most common viruses in the world, affecting more than 65 percent of all people aged 15 to 49 as HSV-1 and about 11 percent as HSV-2. It’s also very contagious, with most people getting it during childhood — a characteristic that’s a key part of why it’s so commonplace. When most people hear of “catching herpes,” they think of sexual activity.
But herpes doesn’t always spread through sex. From birth, to innocent, accidental physical contact, non-sexually transmitted herpes is a very real thing you should be aware of.
In this guide, we’ll explain how herpes can be transmitted from person to person, ranging from sexual methods of HSV-2 or HSV-1 transmission to other ways you could catch (or accidentally transmit) either form of the herpes simplex virus to other people.
Before we get into non-sexual ways in which the herpes virus can spread, let’s cover the most obvious: sex.
Genital herpes, which is the form of herpes most people associate with sexual activity, is most often transmitted through sexual activity. If you have genital herpes and have sex with a person that doesn’t have the virus, there’s a significant risk of you transferring it to them.
Herpes transmission can take place even if you don’t have any symptoms of genital herpes. In fact, most people with genital herpes are asymptomatic, meaning herpes transmission can occur without the infected person being aware of their status.
Sexual contact usually spreads the HSV-2 form of the herpes virus. However, it’s also possible for from the mouth (where it causes oral herpes) to the genitals through oral sex.
It’s even possible for herpes to spread from the mouth to the genitals without direct oral sexual contact. For example, if you have oral herpes and touch your mouth shortly before touching the genitals of your sexual partner, there’s still a risk of transmitting the virus.
While it’s not possible to completely eliminate your risk of spreading herpes through sex, there are steps you can take to reduce your transmission risk. Our guide to sex with herpes includes several tips and tactics that you can use to make sex safer if you have HSV-1 or HSV-2.
One of the most common ways in which the herpes virus spreads is through kissing. If you have HSV-1, which usually causes oral herpes, there’s a risk of you transmitting the virus to others via your saliva.
When the herpes virus is active, it’s present in the saliva in your mouth and on your lips. Even a momentary kiss can be enough for HSV-1 transmission, resulting in them becoming infected.
Like with genital herpes, it’s possible to pass on oral herpes (typically HSV-1) even if you don’t have any symptoms, a process called "shedding." Many people with oral herpes are completely asymptomatic, meaning the virus can spread through their saliva without them ever knowing about their herpes status.
Herpes can also spread through birth. Women who have active herpes at the time of birth (for example, an ongoing genital herpes outbreak) can potentially pass the herpes virus on to their child during the process of giving birth.
Herpes transmitted during birth is a serious health risk for infants, with the potential for infections of the skin, eyes and mouth. Many infants that develop herpes through birth also experience diseases of the central nervous system caused by the virus. In some cases, the virus can even be fatal.
Because of this, doctors take significant precautions for expectant mothers with active genital herpes outbreaks. Women with herpes should be advised to undergo cesarean delivery to minimize risks to their child, or examined to make sure there’s no sign of an outbreak during delivery.
Even though genital herpes is fairly common, it’s very rare for it to be transmitted to infants at delivery. Up to one in 3,200 newborn babies in the U.S. are infected with the virus during delivery, and 10 out of every 100,000 globally, making herpes acquisition through birth a rare event.
Finally, it’s also possible for herpes to spread through indirect contact between a person with the virus and an uninfected person. For example, while improbable, the herpes virus can theoretically spread from one person to another through a wet towel, straw, utensil or other shared item.
The key word here is improbable.
Literature suggests that while the herpes virus does survive for some period of time outside the human body, the most commonly known mode of transmission is through direct contact with an infected person.
However, it is hypothetically possible for herpes to spread from one person to another by quickly reusing a straw, spoon or other item that came into contact with an infected person’s saliva.
Herpes is extremely common, making it completely normal to have some level of concern about being exposed to the virus. The reality is that many people have some form of herpes, whether it’s the more common HSV-1 form of the virus or the less common HSV-2 form.
Are you interested in learning more about how herpes spreads from person to person, as well as what you can do to minimize your risks? Our guide to herpes types covers the process in more detail, with specific tips on how to reduce your herpes exposure risk. Looking for herpes treatment? We have you covered there, too.