When we say, “herpes” many of us are thinking about genital herpes, famously known as an incurable inconvenience. But there is more to it than being just a sexually transmitted infection. There are multiple ways that herpes can transmit but genital herpes is usually picked up from sexual contact. Apart from that, herpes can be transmitted when sharing an environment with someone who has the infection as well.
“Herpes is caused by sexual intimacy and contact with a person who is actively shedding the herpes virus,” says Cullins. If you have HSV-1, that shedding could happen through the mouth or a cold sore, which means that the virus can be transmitted through kissing, or just sharing a drink. If you have herpes that affects the genitals, it can be transmitted from sharing sex toys, grinding, or even mutual masturbation — any activity where the virus can be transmitted from one person to another through skin-to-skin or mucosal contact.
It can be pretty similar to having flu, Michael says. "When you are infected with herpes you can experience symptoms like fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, and a general feeling of being unwell." However, many people will not have any symptoms at all - which means until someone notices blisters or sores, they might not realise they have a herpes infection.
Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, or have symptoms but do not recognize them as a sign of infection. Genital herpes symptoms include blisters, sharp pain or burning feelings if urine flows over sores, an inability to urinate if severe swelling of sores blocks the urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the vagina), itching, open sores, and pain in the infected area.

When we say, “herpes” many of us are thinking about genital herpes, famously known as an incurable inconvenience. But there is more to it than being just a sexually transmitted infection. There are multiple ways that herpes can transmit but genital herpes is usually picked up from sexual contact. Apart from that, herpes can be transmitted when sharing an environment with someone who has the infection as well.
Human herpes virus 3 (HHV3) is also called varicella-zoster virus. HHV3 causes chickenpox. It can also cause a recurrent virus infection of the skin, which is called herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles occurs when dormant varicella-zoster virus from an initial bout of chickenpox becomes reactivated. Like its close relative, HHV1, herpes zoster likes to infect skin cells and nerve cells. This virus may also recur along nerve fibre pathways, causing multiple sores where nerve fibres end on skin cells. Because an entire group of nerve cells is often affected, shingles is generally much more severe than a recurrence of herpes simplex. The lesions generally appear in a band-like or belt-like pattern occurring on one side of the body and are often accompanied by itching, tingling, or even severe pain. Healing usually occurs in 2 to 4 weeks, and scars may remain. Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles where the pain associated with the infection can persist for months and even years. Most people who experience shingles once do not experience it again.
HSV-2 is contracted through forms of sexual contact with a person who has HSV-2. An estimated 20 percent of sexually active adults in the United States are infected with HSV-2, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). HSV-2 infections are spread through contact with a herpes sore. In contrast, most people get HSV-1 from an infected person who is asymptomatic, or does not have sores.
“Someone having HSV doesn't mean that they were reckless or irresponsible with their sex life,” says Sara, age 30. “I used condoms with all my partners, and I still caught it.” For Jamie, who contracted herpes from her husband three years into their monogamous relationship, he was her first and only sexual partner. And she says that he contracted it from one of his very first sexual encounters. No matter how and why someone contracted the virus, it doesn't erase their humanity and right to respect.
The most effective method of avoiding genital infections is by avoiding vaginal, oral, and anal sex.[1] Condom use decreases the risk.[1] Daily antiviral medication taken by someone who has the infection can also reduce spread.[1] There is no available vaccine[1] and once infected, there is no cure.[1] Paracetamol (acetaminophen) and topical lidocaine may be used to help with the symptoms.[2] Treatments with antiviral medication such as aciclovir or valaciclovir can lessen the severity of symptomatic episodes.[1][2]
There are two types of herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2).[1] HSV-1 more commonly causes infections around the mouth while HSV-2 more commonly causes genital infections.[2] They are transmitted by direct contact with body fluids or lesions of an infected individual.[1] Transmission may still occur when symptoms are not present.[1] Genital herpes is classified as a sexually transmitted infection.[1] It may be spread to an infant during childbirth.[1] After infection, the viruses are transported along sensory nerves to the nerve cell bodies, where they reside lifelong.[2] Causes of recurrence may include: decreased immune function, stress, and sunlight exposure.[2][3] Oral and genital herpes is usually diagnosed based on the presenting symptoms.[2] The diagnosis may be confirmed by viral culture or detecting herpes DNA in fluid from blisters.[1] Testing the blood for antibodies against the virus can confirm a previous infection but will be negative in new infections.[1]
Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.

The herpes simplex virus is probably the most well-known virus of the herpes family, and it is just as contagious. Herpes simplex infects epithelial cells and remains latent in neurons. HSV-1 causes recurrent oropharyngeal lesions, commonly known as “fever blisters" or "cold sores.” It is also the primary cause of sporadic encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), gingivostomatitis (inflammation of the gums and mucous lining of the mouth), and keratoconjunctivitis (severe dryness of the eye that involves the cornea) and dendritic corneal ulcers (also called HSV keratitis) in which the cornea becomes affected by herpetic lesions that look like the dendrites of neurons in the brain.
HSV asymptomatic shedding occurs at some time in most individuals infected with herpes. It can occur more than a week before or after a symptomatic recurrence in 50% of cases.[33] Virus enters into susceptible cells by entry receptors[34] such as nectin-1, HVEM and 3-O sulfated heparan sulfate.[35] Infected people who show no visible symptoms may still shed and transmit viruses through their skin; asymptomatic shedding may represent the most common form of HSV-2 transmission.[33] Asymptomatic shedding is more frequent within the first 12 months of acquiring HSV. Concurrent infection with HIV increases the frequency and duration of asymptomatic shedding.[36] Some individuals may have much lower patterns of shedding, but evidence supporting this is not fully verified; no significant differences are seen in the frequency of asymptomatic shedding when comparing persons with one to 12 annual recurrences to those with no recurrences.[33]
Herpesviral encephalitis and herpesviral meningitis Herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE) is a rare life-threatening condition that is thought to be caused by the transmission of HSV-1 either from the nasal cavity to the brain's temporal lobe or from a peripheral site on the face, along the trigeminal nerve axon, to the brainstem.[16][17][18][19] Despite its low incidence, HSE is the most common sporadic fatal encephalitis worldwide. HSV-2 is the most common cause of Mollaret's meningitis, a type of recurrent viral meningitis.
Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes.  See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body.  How do you know if you have herpes?  Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.  

Herpes virus type 5 is also known as cytomegalovirus. It is the major cause of mononucleosis. Mononucleosis causes symptoms similar to infectious mononucleosis. It is spread via blood transfusion, breast-feeding, organ transplants, and sexual contact. The virus causes diarrhea, or severe vision problems and even leads to AIDS. People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to these diseases.

There are two types of herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2).[1] HSV-1 more commonly causes infections around the mouth while HSV-2 more commonly causes genital infections.[2] They are transmitted by direct contact with body fluids or lesions of an infected individual.[1] Transmission may still occur when symptoms are not present.[1] Genital herpes is classified as a sexually transmitted infection.[1] It may be spread to an infant during childbirth.[1] After infection, the viruses are transported along sensory nerves to the nerve cell bodies, where they reside lifelong.[2] Causes of recurrence may include: decreased immune function, stress, and sunlight exposure.[2][3] Oral and genital herpes is usually diagnosed based on the presenting symptoms.[2] The diagnosis may be confirmed by viral culture or detecting herpes DNA in fluid from blisters.[1] Testing the blood for antibodies against the virus can confirm a previous infection but will be negative in new infections.[1]


Herpes simplex type 1, which is transmitted through oral secretions or sores on the skin, can be spread through kissing or sharing objects such as toothbrushes or eating utensils. In general, a person can only get herpes type 2 infection during sexual contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. It is important to know that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be spread even if sores are not present.

Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 30% of pregnant women in the United States have genital HSV. During pregnancy, people are immunocompromised so that their body doesn’t fight the fetus as a foreign invader. And when a person’s immune system is weakened, they are more likely to have herpes outbreaks. According to Cullins, “Pregnancy is the time period when [a provider] really wants to know whether or not the person has had herpes in the past,” so they can protect the pregnant person and their infant from a herpes infection.
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