There’s herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). “HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different but closely related viruses,” says Dr. Christine Johnston, MPH, who is the Associate Medical Director of the Virology Research Clinic at the University of Washington. Johnston explains that both are transmitted through close mucosal or skin contact with infected secretions. HSV-1 primarily causes oral outbreaks, also known as cold sores, and HSV-2 usually causes genital outbreaks. But HSV-1 can also cause genital outbreaks through oral-to-genital contact, according to the CDC. According to Johnston, genital HSV-1 is less likely to recur than HSV-2, and there’s less asymptomatic shedding (transmitting the virus without realizing it) with HSV-1 than with HSV-2.
As of 2017, there is not currently a herpes vaccine available to prevent HSV-1 or HSV-2. (There is a vaccine available for another virus, herpes zoster; however, despite the similar name, it actually refers to the shingles virus. And, in fact, shingles occurs due to the reactivation of yet another virus, varicella zoster, which causes chicken pox.)
The broader issue is whether, if you do get infected, herpes will ultimately harm your health. Although I don’t want to trivialize this infection, in your general scheme of health, it probably will not. The major concern is that if you are pregnant and develop a new outbreak of herpes, the virus can be transmitted to the fetus, especially during vaginal delivery. What’s more, people with genital herpes have a much greater risk of acquiring HIV if they are exposed. (It’s theorized that the lesion causes microscopic breaks in the skin, allowing HIV to enter the body.)
“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.
Herpes is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, not through blood or saliva. Cullins explains that someone with HSV can be shedding the herpes virus without having an outbreak (known as asymptomatic virus shedding), and infect somebody that way. Suppressive antiviral medications, like acyclovir or valacyclovir, inhibit HSV replication, which decreases shedding but does not completely eliminate it, says Johnston.
Herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal. These symptoms are sometimes called “having an outbreak.” The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.
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.
"When you are having an outbreak of oral herpes, symptoms usually start with a burning, itching or tingling sensation on your lips," Michael says. "This will intensify until a small rash, and then blisters, appear. These sores are commonly called 'cold sores'. The blisters are usually filled with a clear or slightly yellow liquid. Over a short time, these blisters will burst leaving a painful, raw area. These will then dry and scab over. The scabs will generally fall off after a week or two, leaving fresh clear skin beneath."