Genital Herpes Transmission
The most common way to get genital herpes is by having vaginal or anal intercourse with someone who has open herpes sores. However, transmission of the genital herpes virus is also possible through an infected partner who does not have visible sores and may not know that he or she is infected. Transmission may also occur through oral sex or close skin-to-skin contact.
How Is Genital Herpes Spread?
Genital herpes is spread by direct skin-to-skin or mucous membrane contact with an infected person. Most often, this occurs from having sex (either vaginal or anal sex) with someone who has an open herpes sore (this is when an infected person is most contagious).
However, transmission can also occur from an infected partner who does not have a visible sore and may not know that he or she is infected but is actively shedding the virus. In fact, people who do not know they have herpes play an important role in herpes transmission.
You can also transmit herpes through close contact other than sexual intercourse, such as through oral sex or close skin-to-skin contact. In rare cases, herpes can be spread from mother to child during delivery (see Genital Herpes and Pregnancy). Herpes is not transmitted by sitting on contaminated toilet seats, by hot tubs or swimming pools, or through other kinds of non-intimate contact.
Transmitting Genital Herpes Without Symptoms
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by one of two types of herpes simplex virus: herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-2 is the most common cause.
In many cases, people with genital herpes know the virus is active because they have herpes symptoms, such as sores. However, this isn't always the case.
The herpes virus can become active without causing symptoms. During these times, small amounts of the virus are present on the skin, often at the place of first infection. This reactivation without symptoms, known as "asymptomatic shedding," may also occur in rectal tissue or in fluids from the penis or vagina.
Even during asymptomatic shedding, a person can transmit the herpes virus. In fact, herpes research studies have shown that most people get the herpes simplex virus from sexual contact during times of asymptomatic viral shedding.
Researchers have also found that people with HSV-2 genital herpes infections tend to have more shedding than those with HSV-1. In addition, people with new infections are more likely to shed the virus than those with an infection that is more than a year old. Those with frequent recurrences may also shed the virus more often, but this is still an area being studied.