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.
“I kind of can't stand when people tell me how ‘brave’ I am for talking about it,” says Lachrista Greco, 30, who was diagnosed with herpes almost two year ago. That kind of narrative can actually perpetuate the stigma around the virus. By insinuating that talking about something makes someone brave, the implication is that that thing shouldn’t be talked about at all.
Herpes virus type 4 is also called Epstein-Barr virus. It typically causes infectious mononucleosis, a “kissing” disease. Symptoms include skin rash, fever, sore throat and swollen lymph glands. The virus can be involved in cancers like nasopharyngeal cancer. Herpes virus type 4 is contagious through bodily fluids, including saliva. Kissing, coughing, sneezing, or sharing utensils can make the infection spread.
Herpes type 2 (HSV-2) can cause genital herpes. This is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the US. It causes sores or painful blisters on the penis, vagina, scrotum, anus and buttocks. Along with blisters, people with HSV-2 may experience tingling, itching or pain. Like HSV-1, HSV-2 infections are highly contagious. They can be spread easily through skin-to-skin contact. Sexual intercourse is the main route of transmission.
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.