What is herpes?

Herpes is an infection caused by a virus, either herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2.) Although most genital herpes infections are caused by HSV-2 and most oral herpes infections are caused by HSV-1, we now know that either virus, type 1 or type 2 can cause blisters or sores known as genital herpes.


Who has the virus herpes?

Genital herpes is more common than a lot of people realize – about 1 in 6 people between 14 and 49 are infected. As many as 90% of people with genital herpes are unaware that they have the virus.

How do you get herpes?

Any skin-to-skin touching with infected areas can pass along herpes, even if the person who has herpes doesn’t have any visible sores or other symptoms. Once you have herpes, the virus is always in your body, so it can pass by oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Oral herpes, an infection of the lips, mouth or gums that causes blisters, can be spread from the mouth to the genital area during oral sex. And just as oral herpes can infect the genitals and cause genital herpes, genital herpes can pass from one person’s genitals to another person’s mouth, causing oral herpes. 

What are the symptoms of herpes?

Some people have no symptoms at all. But many people who have herpes get blisters or sores on their lips, inside the mouth, or on or inside the vagina, penis, thighs, or buttocks. These blisters or sores are different for everyone – some people only get them once; other people have "outbreaks" many times over their lifetime.

How do you test for herpes?

If you have sores or blisters that you feel may be herpes, have your medical provider look at them. They may decide to take a sample from them by swabbing the open sore with a cotton swab. If you don’t have symptoms your provider can opt to take a sample of blood to test for herpes, although the results are not always clear-cut.

Can you get rid of herpes? Are herpes curable?

No – once you have herpes, you have the virus for the rest of your life. But there are medicines that help the sores heal more quickly and they can decrease your partners’ risk of contracting herpes from you if you take the medicine everyday. These medicines can also make the outbreaks less frequent and less uncomfortable.

How can you protect yourself from getting herpes?

The only method that is 100% effective in preventing STDs is abstinence, but if you’re sexually active, the best way to avoid herpes is by being mutually monogamous with someone who also does not have herpes. Condoms may reduce the risk of passing herpes to a partner, but since it can be passed by touching, condoms aren’t 100% effective. If your partner is having an outbreak, your safest option is abstinence from sex. But remember, herpes can still be contagious, even before the open sore is visible. 

What’s the worst that could happen?

You could pass it on to your partners, even if you don’t have sores or blisters when you have sex.

Herpes infection increases your likelihood of getting HIV. Pregnant women who have herpes can pass it on to their babies during birth, which could make them really sick.

Rarely, when a person first catches herpes, the virus can spread to the spinal cord and brain.