Herpes Prevention & Risks

Reviewed by Ruthann Cunningham, MD., July 7, 2017

How is herpes type 2 spread?

Genital herpes is spread through skin to skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It infects the body through a cut in the skin or a mucous membrane around the genitals. Bodily fluids like saliva can also carry the virus. The risk for transmitting a herpes infection is highest with sexual contact with a person who has active HSV-2 infection, i.e, the presence of blisters or sores.

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That said, the virus can't survive outside of the body so you can't get it from toilet seats, using someone's towel, or from trying on clothes.

What happens once the virus is transmitted?

Once the virus comes into contact with a mucosal surface (like the genitals), it begins to replicate or reproduce. It travels through nerve cells to their "roots" where it can be dormant or latent for many years. It's thought that during these latent times, the herpes virus cannot be spread but current research calls this into question. Outbreaks are also known as "shedding". During the shedding period, the virus is transmissible through bodily fluids and can be spread to other people. Shedding can happen with or without obvious sores. That's why herpes can often go unnoticed.

Who is at risk for herpes?

Everyone who has sex is at risk for herpes. Current CDC data indicates that at least 16 percent of the U.S. population between the ages of 14 and 49 has genital herpes. And that's just the reported cases. And more than 80 percent of the people who have the herpes simplex 2 virus do not know that they have the virus because they’ve never had symptoms or been tested. Abstaining from sex is the only way to be 100% safe from getting or spreading herpes. If you are sexually active, a latex condom is the best way to protect yourself and your partner. The best way for women to decrease their chance of infection when having sex with other women is to properly use a latex dental dam.

What are the complications of untreated herpes?

Herpes is not life-threatening but and not commonly tested for like other STDs. The worst problems associated with untreated herpes is physical discomfort from the sores, inconvenience, and stress. Like other STDs, if left untreated, herpes can increase a person's chance of getting or spreading HIV. Herpes during pregnancy can cause premature labor and miscarriage. For a newborn baby, herpes can be very serious and may cause blindness, brain damage or even death. A woman with herpes can have a healthy baby, but precautions must be taken. All pregnant women should be tested for sexually transmitted diseases as early as possible in pregnancy. You should be tested again during your pregnancy if you are at higher risk for getting an STD.

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