How Contagious is Herpes?

Upset woman touching lips in front of mirror suffering herpes

Herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) is a common virus that can cause infections in various body parts. One of the most common forms of herpes is oral herpes, also known as cold sores. It is common because it is contagious. But just how contagious is it, and how does one become infected?

Transmission of Oral Herpes

It is estimated that up to 90% of adults have been exposed to the virus. However, not every person exposed to the virus will develop symptoms. Some may be carriers of the virus without ever experiencing an outbreak.

Oral herpes spreads through direct contact with a person who has an active virus outbreak. The herpes virus is most contagious when sores are present on the lips or inside the mouth. During this time, the virus can be transmitted through kissing or sharing utensils, towels or lip balm. However, the virus can also spread when there are no visible sores or symptoms, which is known as “asymptomatic shedding.”

The virus can also spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone with genital herpes (HSV-2). Both types of herpes viruses (HSV-1 and HSV-2) can infect both the mouth and genitals. However, HSV-1 often causes oral herpes, while HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes. Therefore, it is necessary to practice safe sex and avoid oral sex during an outbreak of either type of herpes.

Herpes and Children

Although herpes is often associated with sexual activity, children can also contract the virus. Therefore, parents should take precautions to prevent the spread of herpes, such as avoiding kissing or sharing utensils with children during an outbreak.

Pregnant women with genital herpes can transmit the virus to their babies during delivery. This is known as neonatal herpes and can cause severe health complications, including brain damage and blindness. Therefore, pregnant women with genital herpes must discuss their condition with their healthcare provider to minimize the risk of transmission to their newborn.

Herpes and the Immune System

Individuals with weakened immune systems (like those with HIV/AIDS, cancer and organ transplants) are at increased risk of developing severe herpes infections. In these individuals, herpes infections can be more challenging to treat and can lead to complications such as meningitis or encephalitis.

In addition, individuals with herpes are at an increased risk of contracting HIV, which causes AIDS. This is because herpes can cause breaks in the skin, allowing for easier transmission. In addition, HIV-positive individuals who also have herpes may experience more frequent and severe outbreaks. Therefore, individuals with herpes must practice safe sex and get tested regularly for HIV.

Records of Herpes Throughout Human History

Herpes has been affecting humans for thousands of years. Its history dates back to ancient Greece, where the symptoms of genital herpes were described in the medical writings of Hippocrates. However, the virus’s first known reference can be found in ancient Indian literature. There is a description of a disease that sounds very similar to herpes in the Ayurvedic text, Caraka Samhita.

The modern understanding of herpes began in the early 1900s when scientists discovered the herpes simplex virus. Scientists at Harvard Medical School, who were looking for the cause of herpetic keratitis, an eye condition that results in corneal ulcers, discovered the virus for the first time in 1920.

Prevention of Oral Herpes

The best way to prevent spreading herpes is to avoid contact with the virus. This means avoiding sexual activity or close contact with someone who has an active outbreak. Using condoms can also reduce transmission risk.

While there is no herpes cure, treatments are available to manage the symptoms and reduce the chances of transmission. If you are diagnosed with herpes, antiviral medications are available to help reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks. These medications can also reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

In addition, if you have oral herpes, avoiding close contact with others during an episode and practicing good hygiene are essential. Good hygiene entails washing your hands often and avoiding touching sores. Furthermore, if you think you may have oral herpes, seeing a healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment is crucial.

Medical Dermatology Specialists Can Help

If you are experiencing symptoms of oral herpes or have concerns about your risk of contracting the virus, the medical professionals at Medical Dermatology Specialists can help. Our dermatologists and healthcare providers specialize in diagnosing and treating various skin conditions, including cold sores. Contact us to meet with a skincare expert and learn how we can help you safeguard your skin and overall health.

Posted on behalf of Dr. Jamie Weisman, Medical Dermatology Specialists, Inc.