Herpes simplex is a highly contagious viral infection spread by contact with body fluids or lesions. Classified as an STD (sexually transmitted disease) or STI (sexually transmitted infection), herpes is spread by sexual activity including vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, kissing, and oral sex.
The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is categorized into 2 types:
herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) oral herpes - usually above the waist
herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) genital herpes - usually below the waist
HSV-1 or cold sores are typically acquired in childhood. Most people with oral herpes were infected from non-sexual contact with saliva.
A person can get HSV-2 during genital contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection. However, receiving oral sex from a person with an oral HSV-1 infection can result in a HSV-1 genital infection.
Herpes is very common. Approximately 90% of American adults have been exposed to HSV-1 by the age of 40. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 1 in 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with HSV-2. The CDC estimates that 776,000 people in the US get new genital herpes infections annually. A recent nationally representative study concluded HSV-2 is more common in women, as approximately one out of four women compared to one out of five men are infected. It was also found the virus is more common in blacks, 45.9%, as compared to 17.6% of whites.
HSV-2 infections have increased 30% among Americans since the 1970’s. Young white teens are experiencing the greatest increase. Today HSV-2 infection is five times greater than it was 20 years ago among 12 to 19 year old white teens. Young adults from 20 to 29 are now twice as likely to be infected. There is also an increasing number of genital herpes infections caused by HSV-1, due to people with cold sores performing oral sex.
Infection with HSV-2 increases the risk of acquiring HIV infection approximately 2- to 4-fold.
Although herpes is associated with sores, many people are not aware that they have contracted herpes because they have no sores. Asymptomatic shedding can occur even when there are no visible symptoms.