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.
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However, asymptomatic carriers of the HSV-2 virus are still contagious. In many infections, the first symptom people will have of their own infections is the horizontal transmission to a sexual partner or the vertical transmission of neonatal herpes to a newborn at term. Since most asymptomatic individuals are unaware of their infection, they are considered at high risk for spreading HSV.
These herpes viruses enter the body through small cuts, abrasions, or breaks in the skin or mucous membranes. The incubation period for herpes simplex infections is about three to six days. Transmission (spread) of the virus is person to person and more likely to occur if blisters or lesions are present. The majority enter after an uninfected person has direct contact with someone carrying the virus (either with or without noticeable lesions). Simply touching an infected person is often the way children get exposed. Adolescents and adults frequently get exposed by skin contact but may get their first exposure by kissing or sexual contact (oral and/or genital contact), especially for HSV-2. Statistical studies suggest that about 80%-90% of people in the U.S. have been exposed to HSV-1 and about 30% have been exposed to HSV-2. Usually, the contagious period continues until lesions heal. Some people (estimated from 30%-50%) occasionally shed herpes virus while having few or no associated symptoms or signs.
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.
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.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
Once a person is infected, there are no symptoms for anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks. This is known as the incubation period and is the time during which the virus multiplies profusely. The first symptoms that are seen are the small fluid-filled blisters known as vesicles. This arises as the virus starts destroying cells at the site and causes intense localized inflammation. These small vesicles or sometimes the larger bullae may either burst resulting in ulcer or heal completely with no scarring. The virus may also travel from the site of infection and “hides” by the sensory dorsal root. Here it remains latent until is it is reactivated.
“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.
People who have had HSV-1 are less likely to contract HSV-2 than those who have not. Previous exposure to HSV-1 also decreases the severity of an HSV-2 outbreak. Reoccurrence of the virus is common, and the virus can be active yet asymptomatic. These infections are more likely to be contracted since the person isn’t aware the virus is active. Studies have shown that 50 percent of the cases of sexual transmission of the virus occurred during asymptomatic infections.
A herpes infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It has 2 main types, including HSV-1 and HSV-2. While HSV-1 can cause oral herpes, HSV-2 can be responsible for genital herpes. Oral herpes is also known as cold sores or fever blisters. It mainly occurs on the lips, around the mouth. Genital herpes is usually referred to as herpes. It mostly affects the genitals and anal area. Genital herpes is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease. It’s extremely contagious and can be spread through sexual intercourse.