Transmission

How do you get Herpes?

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. A person has about a 75% chance of contracting herpes during intimate contact with someone actively shedding the virus.

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 Transmission." Many genital herpes infections are spread from persons who are asymptomatic "Shedders" of the virus. At the University of Washington, researchers found that even 10 years after being diagnosed with HSV-2, adults continue to shed virus nearly 14% of days.

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.

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 asymptomatic shedding.

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 virus.

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.

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