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, whether on the mouth or genitals, is caused by a family of over 70 related viruses. These viral infections cause small, fluid-filled blisters to develop on the skin and mucous membranes. There are actually eight different types of herpes simplex viruses that both children and adults can acquire, but two are by far the most common: HSV-1 and HSV-2.


Particularly when someone is on suppressive antiviral medication and practicing safer sex, risk of transmission can be greatly reduced. Cullins suggests female condoms (condoms that go inside the vagina and cover most of the vulva, though it's important to note that not all people with vaginas are female) to provide the most protection against transmission, though condoms that go over the penis will protect what they cover.
A person may show symptoms within days after contracting genital herpes, or it may take weeks, months, or years. Some people may have a severe outbreak within days after contracting the virus while others may have a first outbreak so mild that they do not notice it. Because of these possibilities, it can be difficult for people to know when and from whom they may have contracted the virus.
A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that suppressive therapy decreases the risk of HSV-2 transmission from symptomatic, infected partners to uninfected partners by 48%. So “the risk of transmission is significantly reduced, but cannot be eliminated even with suppressive therapy,” Johnston explains, and she stresses that the virus can be passed along even without signs or symptoms.
×