Herpes Fast Facts
Herpes expert H. Hunter Handsfield, MD explains the basics about genital herpes, including the difference between genital HSV-1 and HSV-2 infection, testing options and the importance of knowing virus type, and the three-prong strategy for prevention. See more herpes videos at sexualhealthTV.com.
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- Herpes is a common and usually mild recurrent skin condition caused by a virus: the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV is in a family of viruses called herpesviruses. This family includes Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of mono) and the varicella zoster virus (the cause of chicken pox and shingles). Although there are several viruses in the herpesvirus family, each is a separate virus and different. Having one virus does not mean you will have another.
- There are two types of HSV: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). The majority of oral herpes cases are caused by HSV-1 and the majority of genital herpes cases are caused by HSV-2; however, type-1 or type-2 can occur in either the genital or oral area.
- More than 50 percent of American adults have oral herpes, which is commonly called cold sores or fever blisters. Oral herpes is almost always due to HSV-1 infection.
- About one in six people ages 14-49 in the United States have genital HSV-2 infection. However, most people don’t know they are infected because their symptoms are too mild to notice or mistaken for something else.
- Oral and genital herpes can be uncomfortable, but they are generally not dangerous infections in healthy adults. Herpes does not affect the immune system. It is rare for adults to have any health problems from genital herpes, but there are a couple of areas of concern. If a woman with genital herpes has virus present in the birth canal during delivery, HSV can be spread to an infant, causing neonatal herpes, a serious and sometimes fatal condition. The risk is greatest for women who contract genital HSV during pregnancy. Additionally, having genital HSV makes it easier to get and/or transmit HIV, a virus that can cause AIDS.
- There are several days throughout the year when herpes can be spread even when there are no symptoms (called asymptomatic reactivation or asymptomatic shedding). The surest way to prevent the spread of genital herpes is to avoid sexual contact during an outbreak and to use condoms for sexual contact between outbreaks. Suppressive (daily) antiviral treatment with valacyclovir has also been proven to reduce the risk of transmission to a partner.