How You Can Get Herpes (2023)

Herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV) types 1 and 2. These contagious viruses are spread through skin-to-skin contact with a person who is having a herpes outbreak.

You get herpes by touching a herpes sore or the skin, lips, genital fluids, or saliva of a person with an oral or genital herpes infection. Herpes can be spread even when there are no visible blisters or sores.

How You Can Get Herpes (1)


This article discusses how herpes is spread. It also explains who is at high risk for herpes and how you can protect yourself.

Common Causes

You can get herpes when one of the herpes simplex viruses enters through your skin and travels to the nerves. When this virus becomes active, it can cause skin sores.

HSV-1 is normally associated with infections on or around the mouth and lips. HSV-2 is usually associated with genital infections.

The herpes viruses spread when they comein contact with broken skin or with the mouth, vagina, penis, or anus.

HSV1 causes cold sores. Herpes type 1 is spread by kissing, touching, and oral sex.

HSV2 causes blisters on the skin around the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, scrotum (balls), butt, anus, upper thighs, or mouth. You get herpes type 2 from sexual contact, including:

  • Intercourse
  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • Hand-to-genitals contact
  • Contact with semen or vaginal fluids of a person who has herpes
  • Sharing sex toys with someone who has herpes

While herpes is most contagious when open sores known as ulcers are open or oozing, it can also be spread when sores are not present and when the skin is intact due to what's known as asymptomatic shedding. In other words, the virus is there and can be passed even though there's no obvious sign of it.

Unfortunately, there is no way to detect asymptomatic shedding, so you have to consider herpes contagious all the time, even in the absence of symptoms.

People can reinfect themselves by touching a sore and then scratching or rubbing another area of skin on their own body.

(Video) Herpes (oral & genital) - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, pathology

Women who have vaginal HSV-2 infections can also transmitthe virus to their babies during vaginal delivery. This type of transmission is more common if the mother has newly acquired the infection.

How Herpes Outbreaks Occur

Once it enters a human cell, the HSV virus penetrates the cell's nucleus and begins the processof replication. Even though cells may be infected, you probably will not experience any symptoms at this stage.

During the initial infection, the virus is transported through nerve cells to nerve-branching points, known as ganglia. There, the virus will stay in an inactive, dormant state, neither replicating nor presenting any signs that it's even there.

On occasion, the dormant virus may suddenly reactivate, starting the replication process anew. When this happens, the virus will travel back through the nerve to the surface of the skin. With this, many of the infected skin cells are killed, causing blisters to form. The eruption of these blisters creates the characteristic ulcers that are recognized as cold sores or genital herpes.

What Triggers Outbreaks?

Certain triggers can cause the herpes virus to reactivate. This is known as a recurrence and can happen even if you have a healthy immune system.

There are several known triggers that can stimulate recurrence, including:

  • Physical stress, such as an infection, an illness, or an injury
  • Persistent emotional stress or anxiety for greater than one week
  • Exposure to ultraviolet light (UV light, such as from the sun), excessive heat, or cold
  • Hormonal changes, such as duringmenstruation
  • Fatigue

Health Risk Factors

A number of health factors can predispose you to a more severe or longer-lasting HSV infection if you already have HSV-1 or HSV-2. However, these risk factors do not make you more likely to acquire the infection. They are:

  • Immunosuppression: If your immune system is deficient for any reason, you are at a greater risk of having a more serious or persistent HSV infection and more frequent reactivations. Your immune system can be suppressed for several reasons, including an autoimmune condition, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), immunoglobulin A (IgA) disease, an illness such as cancer of the bone marrow, chemotherapy treatment, or organ transplantation.
  • Immunosuppressive medication use: You can have a worse HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection or a reactivation if you are on an immunosuppressive medication such as a steroid or chemotherapy. This should no longer be the case once you stop taking the medication and your immune system function returns to normal.
  • HIV: HIV infection specifically causes decreased immunity to viruses, and herpes virus infections may be more severe if you have an HIV infection.
  • IgA deficiency: While any immune deficiency can predispose you to recurrent sores or to a more severe bout of HSV infection, IgA deficiency is the immune deficiency most often associated with HSV.IgA is an immune protein that specifically protects against infections of the mucous membranes, which are the areas of thin skin that are protected by a fluid-like mucus, such as the mouth and vagina.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

Herpes is a particularly common virus, and there is an especially high risk of exposure associated with certain activities, including:

  • Unprotected sex:HSV-2 is most often transmitted from one person to another through sex, including oral sex. HSV-1 can also be transmittedthrough sexual activity, although it is not as common.Having multiple sexual partners and having unprotected sex with partners who could be infected raise your risk.
  • Kissing:Kissing or other mouth contact is one of the most common ways of transmission of HSV-1.
  • Sharingitems:The HSV-1 virus can be transmitted by sharing items such as cups, toothbrushes, and even recently exposed towels. Using someone else's lipstick, lip gloss, or lip balm is particularly problematic, as these items areinherently moist, which allows the virus to stick around easily.
  • Prolonged skin-to-skin contact:Herpes gladiatorum, atype of infection caused by HSV-1,is characterized by sores on the face, head, and neck. This type of herpes infection is most often noted among wrestlers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is HSV-1 an STI?

    HSV-1 is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Though it can be spread through sexual contact, this is not the most common method of transmission. In fact, oral herpes is often contracted during childhood due to direct contact with sores (for example, a parent giving their child a kiss) or items that are contaminated.

  • Do cold sores mean you have an STD?

    Not necessarily. Cold sores (oral herpes) are typically caused by HSV-1, which is usually spread through nonsexual contact. HSV-2—the sexually transmitted variant—can appear in or around the mouth if contracted through oral sex. However, it is rare that a cold sore is due to HSV-2.

    (Video) Oral Herpes Treatment || Genital Herpes Cure || Herpes Symptoms - All You Need to Know
  • Can you get herpes from stress?

    No, but stress can trigger an outbreak if the virus is dormant in your body. It is possible to contract HSV-2 without having any noticeable symptoms and remain asymptomatic for many years.

  • Can you get herpes in your brain?

    Yes. Known as herpes meningoencephalitis, it occurs when the herpes virus causes swelling of the thin layer of tissue that cover your brain (meninges). The meningitis infection can spread to the brain, causing encephalitis. Meningoencephalitis can be caused by bacteria, fungus, or virus, including herpes simplex 1 and 2.

How to Know If You Have Herpes

4 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes: CDC basic fact sheet.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology. Herpes simplex

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet (detailed). Reviewed July 22, 2021.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Herpes meningoencephalitis.

Additional Reading

(Video) Herpes Simplex

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.

(Video) Genital Herpes Myths & Facts | STDs

See Our Editorial Process

Meet Our Medical Expert Board

Share Feedback

Was this page helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!

(Video) What is #Herpes? Signs, Symptoms and Causes of Herpes and Can it be Cured? Dr. Rowley Explains

What is your feedback?

FAQs

How do you get herpes for the first time? ›

How do people get genital herpes? Infections are transmitted through contact with HSV in herpes lesions, mucosal surfaces, genital secretions, or oral secretions. HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be shed from normal-appearing oral or genital mucosa or skin.

How does herpes Get caused? ›

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.

Can you develop herpes by yourself? ›

As mentioned above, you can also get genital herpes if a partner with oral herpes performs oral sex on you. You can give yourself genital herpes too, by touching a cold sore and then touching your genitals or anus.

Can herpes go away? ›

There's no cure. Symptoms clear up by themselves, but the blisters can come back (an outbreak or recurrence). Treatment from a sexual health clinic can help.

How long does herpes last for? ›

The first outbreak of genital herpes typically lasts for an average of 20 days. Recurrent outbreaks are typically shorter and may last around 10 days. Using antiviral medications may be able to shorten the duration. People who are immune compromised may experience longer outbreaks.

Can you get herpes from a toilet seat? ›

It's very unlikely that you would get genital herpes from a toilet seat. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) spread by skin-to-skin contact. In most cases, the virus enters your body through mucous membranes — the type of skin found in your mouth, genitals or anus.

How do you test for herpes? ›

A healthcare provider may diagnose herpes by looking at any blisters or sores. They can also take a sample or swab from a blister or sore that is not already crusted over or healing. In fact, the tests that use these samples work best.

What does a Herpe sore look like? ›

Herpes looks like white, yellow, or red translucent sores or bumps, filled with a clear liquid, whereas pimples are pink or red and are not see-through. While pimples may appear individually as well as in clusters but in recognizable patterns, herpes sores are primarily observed in a bunch.

How long can you have herpes without knowing? ›

Many people with the herpes virus do not experience any symptoms when first infected. If symptoms do occur they usually take between 2 and 12 days after contact to appear. Sometimes symptoms may not be noticed until months, or sometimes years, after being in contact with the virus.

Why isn't there a cure for herpes? ›

Why creating a cure is difficult. Herpes is challenging to cure because of the nature of the virus. The HSV infection can hide away in a person's nerve cells for long periods of time before reappearing and reactivating the infection.

Is herpes spread by touch? ›

Herpes is spread by touching, kissing, and sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. It can be passed from one partner to another and from one part of the body to another. Brief skin-to-skin contact is all that's needed to pass the virus.

What happens if you leave herpes untreated? ›

Herpes can be painful, but it generally does not cause serious health problems like other STDs can. Without treatment, you might continue to have regular outbreaks, or they could only happen rarely. Some people naturally stop getting outbreaks after a while. Herpes typically does not get worse over time.

How do you cure herpes forever? ›

There is no cure for genital herpes. However, daily use of antiviral medicines can prevent or shorten outbreaks. Antiviral medicines also can reduce the chance of spreading it to others.

What stage of herpes is itchy? ›

The Prodrome Stage

During this initial stage of herpes, the virus progresses to the surface of the skin, which often causes redness, itchiness, tingling, pain, or burning in and around the affected area.

Does herpes affect your organs? ›

Herpes can also spread to internal organs, such as the liver and lungs. Infants infected with herpes are treated with acyclovir, an antiviral drug. They usually receive several weeks of intravenous acyclovir treatment, often followed by several months of oral acyclovir.

Can a woman give a man herpes? ›

The general rate of transmission of a person who has had herpes to their regular partner is about 10 percent per year, but the annual rate rises if the infected partner is a male. Unfairly, the female partner has a 20 percent chance of becoming infected, while the male partner's risk is less than 10 percent.

Can herpes spread in shower? ›

Sharing a bath or shower together isn't a way the herpes virus is passed on – the same is true for spa baths and swimming pools. Washing clothes in the same washing machine, even when a person has a herpes recurrence, will not pass on the virus.

Can you get herpes from kissing? ›

You can also get herpes from kissing someone who has oral herpes. The skin on your genitals, mouth, and eyes can be infected easily. Other areas of skin may get infected if there's a way for the herpes virus to get in, like through a cut, burn, rash, or other sores. You don't have to have sex to get herpes.

How long herpes live on towels? ›

A California pediatrician has shown that the genital herpes virus, the most common cause of serious venereal disease in this country, can live for up to 72 hours on inanimate objects, such as cotton fabric.

What are the first signs of herpes in woman? ›

The first signs may include:
  • Itching, tingling, or burning feeling in the vaginal or anal area.
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or vaginal area.
  • A change in vaginal discharge.
  • Headache.
  • Painful or difficult urination.
  • A feeling of pressure in the area below the stomach.

Is there a cream for herpes? ›

Topical acyclovir is used to treat the symptoms of herpes simplex virus infections of the skin, mucous membranes, and genitals (sex organs). Although topical acyclovir will not cure herpes simplex, it may help relieve the pain and discomfort and may help the sores (if any) heal faster.

Is herpes included in STD test? ›

If you didn't know before now, herpes is generally not included in a standard STD panel. That means all those screens that you so diligently obtained since becoming sexually active and the one you may have asked your partner to get as well, probably did not include herpes.

Can you get herpes without contact? ›

How is herpes transmitted non-sexually? One way to contract herpes without having sex is through kissing. If you have HSV-1, there's a risk of passing it to someone else through saliva. It's also possible to spread the virus if you touch your mouth and then come in contact with another person's bodily fluids.

How long can you have herpes without knowing? ›

Many people with the herpes virus do not experience any symptoms when first infected. If symptoms do occur they usually take between 2 and 12 days after contact to appear. Sometimes symptoms may not be noticed until months, or sometimes years, after being in contact with the virus.

Can you tell how long you've had herpes? ›

Unfortunately, most people who are diagnosed will not be able to determine how long they have had the infection. In addition, IgM tests cannot accurately distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies, and thus very easily provide a false positive result for HSV-2.

What are the first signs of herpes in woman? ›

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
  • itching in your genitals.
  • pain in your genitals.
  • flu-like symptoms, including body aches and fever.
  • swollen lymph nodes in your groin area.
25 Nov 2019

How do you test for herpes? ›

A healthcare provider may diagnose herpes by looking at any blisters or sores. They can also take a sample or swab from a blister or sore that is not already crusted over or healing. In fact, the tests that use these samples work best.

Do condoms prevent herpes? ›

Condoms can reduce your risk of getting genital herpes if used the right way every single time you have sex. But a condom protects only the area of the body that it covers. Areas the condom doesn't cover can become infected.

Can you get herpes from a toilet seat? ›

It's very unlikely that you would get genital herpes from a toilet seat. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) spread by skin-to-skin contact. In most cases, the virus enters your body through mucous membranes — the type of skin found in your mouth, genitals or anus.

Should I get tested for herpes? ›

Like all STDs, the only way to know for sure if you have herpes is to get tested. If you notice sores on or around your genitals, get checked out by a nurse or doctor as soon as you can. Other STDs, like syphilis, can look like herpes but need different treatment. So it's important to find out exactly what's going on.

What does herpes look like? ›

Herpes looks like white, yellow, or red translucent sores or bumps, filled with a clear liquid, whereas pimples are pink or red and are not see-through. While pimples may appear individually as well as in clusters but in recognizable patterns, herpes sores are primarily observed in a bunch.

How can you test for herpes at home? ›

An at-home test, on the other hand, can be done by yourself in private. You can order a herpes test kit online — which may include a swab test or finger prick blood test — and send the sample back in the mail. Most companies will send your results within 5 days.

Can a urine test detect herpes? ›

Does Herpes show in a urine test? Herpes will show in a urine test if and only if you have symptoms at the time of the test. So, a positive urine test means that you do have herpes. If it is negative, it means you did not have an outbreak at the time of the test.

Why isn't there a cure for herpes? ›

Why creating a cure is difficult. Herpes is challenging to cure because of the nature of the virus. The HSV infection can hide away in a person's nerve cells for long periods of time before reappearing and reactivating the infection.

Where is herpes located on a woman? ›

In women and people with female reproductive tracts, herpes lesions can appear on the vulva, perineum, buttocks, anal area, cervix, and inside of the vagina (6), and some people may experience spotting and vaginal discharge (7).

How do you keep herpes dormant? ›

Reducing Outbreaks
  1. Get plenty of sleep. This helps keep your immune system strong.
  2. Eat healthy foods. Good nutrition also helps your immune system stay strong.
  3. Keep stress low. Constant stress can weaken your immune system.
  4. Protect yourself from the sun, wind, and extreme cold and heat.

Can a woman give a man herpes? ›

It's possible. You can spread genital herpes during oral sex even if you aren't showing any herpes symptoms at the time. But herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, when sores are open, moist, or leaking fluid.

Videos

1. How Common Is Herpes Really? | Report Card | RIOT
(Refinery29)
2. Genital herpes: Treatment & Management | Stanford Center for Health Education
(Stanford Center for Health Education)
3. What You Need to Know About Genital Herpes
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))
4. What Is Herpes? And How To Avoid It?
(HOW TO MEDICATE)
5. Herpes Spreads, Even Without Symptoms
(Voice of America)
6. How Contagious is Herpes?
(The Doctors)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Lakeisha Bayer VM

Last Updated: 01/27/2023

Views: 6320

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Lakeisha Bayer VM

Birthday: 1997-10-17

Address: Suite 835 34136 Adrian Mountains, Floydton, UT 81036

Phone: +3571527672278

Job: Manufacturing Agent

Hobby: Skimboarding, Photography, Roller skating, Knife making, Paintball, Embroidery, Gunsmithing

Introduction: My name is Lakeisha Bayer VM, I am a brainy, kind, enchanting, healthy, lovely, clean, witty person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.