Herpes is spread by direct skin to skin contact. Unlike a flu virus that
you can get through the air, herpes spreads by direct contact, that is,
directly from the site of infection to the site of contact. For example, if
you have a cold sore and kiss someone, you can transfer the virus to their
mouth. Similarly, if you have active genital herpes and have vaginal or anal
intercourse, you can give your partner genital herpes. Finally, if you have a
cold sore and put your mouth on your partners genitals (oral sex), you can
give your partner genital herpes.
When Is Herpes Most Likely To Be Spread?
Herpes is most easily spread when a sore is present, but, it is also often
spread at other times too. Some people notice itching, tingling or other
sensations before they see anything on their skin. These are called "Prodromal
Symptoms" and they warn that virus may be present on the skin. Herpes is most
likely to be spread from the time these first symptoms are noticed until the
area is completely healed and the skin looks normal again. Sexual contact
(oral, vaginal, or anal) is very risky during this time.
Can Herpes Be Transmitted Without Symptoms?
Yes! Sometimes those who know they are infected spread the virus between
outbreaks, when no signs or symptoms are present. This is called "Asymptomatic
Research also shows that herpes simplex infections are often spread by
people who don't know they are infected. These people may have symptoms so
mild they don't notice them at all or else don't recognize them as herpes.
Many genital herpes infections are spread from persons who are asymptomatic
"Shedders" of the virus.
For those who recognize their symptoms, asymptomatic transmission appears
to be far less likely than spreading the virus when lesions are present. Many
couples have had sexual relations for years without transmitting herpes. Some
simply avoid having sexual contact when signs or symptoms are present. Others
use condoms or other protection between outbreaks to help protect against
Are complications possible?
One kind of complication involves spreading the virus from the location of
an outbreak to other places on the body by touching the sore(s). The fingers,
eyes, and other body areas can accidentally become infected in this way.
Preventing self-infection is simple. Do not touch the area during an outbreak.
If you do, wash your hands as soon as possible. The herpes virus is easily
killed with soap and water.
What about pregnancy? Can babies get herpes?
Babies can become infected with the herpes virus. If you've been exposed to
herpes, you need to talk with your doctor about it before you get pregnant.
This is important even if you've never had symptoms or haven't had a
recurrence in a long time. The doctor might arrange a test to see if virus is
present when you go into labor. In addition, you should be examined to see if
you have herpes at labor and should notify the doctor if you think you have
active symptoms at that time.
If no virus is found in the birth canal and there are no symptoms or signs
of an outbreak, a vaginal delivery is considered safe. If herpes is present in
the birth canal near the time of delivery, a cesarean section might be
necessary to protect the newborn from coming into direct contact with the
Babies also can get herpes if they are kissed by someone with a cold sore.
A young baby cannot fight off infections as easily as an adult can, so serious
problems might result. It's important that you do not kiss a baby when you
have a cold sore.
Can herpes cause AIDS?
Herpes simplex virus is not related to Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus (HIV),
the cause of AIDS. Studies suggest that sores or lesions in the genital area
make a person more prone to HIV infection if they have sex with someone
carrying HIV. This may be because sores create breaks in the skin of the
genitals and make it easier for HIV to get into the body. Given that herpes
causes such lesions, it is extremely important to avoid sex during outbreaks.
Further research is being conducted in this area.