If you have herpes, you should talk to your sex partner(s) and let him or her know that you do and the risk involved. Using condoms may help lower this risk but it will not get rid of the risk completely. Having sores or other symptoms of herpes can increase your risk of spreading the disease. Even if you do not have any symptoms, you can still infect your sex partners.
Herpes is contracted through direct contact with an active lesion or body fluid of an infected person. Herpes transmission occurs between discordant partners; a person with a history of infection (HSV seropositive) can pass the virus to an HSV seronegative person. Herpes simplex virus 2 is typically contracted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, but can also be contracted by exposure to infected saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or the fluid from herpetic blisters. To infect a new individual, HSV travels through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Even microscopic abrasions on mucous membranes are sufficient to allow viral entry.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Condoms offer moderate protection against HSV-2 in both men and women, with consistent condom users having a 30%-lower risk of HSV-2 acquisition compared with those who never use condoms. A female condom can provide greater protection than the male condom, as it covers the labia. The virus cannot pass through a synthetic condom, but a male condom's effectiveness is limited because herpes ulcers may appear on areas not covered by it. Neither type of condom prevents contact with the scrotum, anus, buttocks, or upper thighs, areas that may come in contact with ulcers or genital secretions during sexual activity. Protection against herpes simplex depends on the site of the ulcer; therefore, if ulcers appear on areas not covered by condoms, abstaining from sexual activity until the ulcers are fully healed is one way to limit risk of transmission. The risk is not eliminated, however, as viral shedding capable of transmitting infection may still occur while the infected partner is asymptomatic. The use of condoms or dental dams also limits the transmission of herpes from the genitals of one partner to the mouth of the other (or vice versa) during oral sex. When one partner has a herpes simplex infection and the other does not, the use of antiviral medication, such as valaciclovir, in conjunction with a condom, further decreases the chances of transmission to the uninfected partner. Topical microbicides that contain chemicals that directly inactivate the virus and block viral entry are being investigated.
The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention explains that pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rashes will eventually appear will occur at least one to five days before the rashes are seen. Once these rashes are visible, they scab for around seven to 10 days and heal within two to four weeks.29 Aside from rashes, symptoms of shingles include fever, chills, headaches, fatigue and an upset stomach.30,31
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.