Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions
Could you explain how you get herpes?
I’m worried about getting herpes. How do you get herpes and how can I protect myself?
Lisa Oldson, MD on November 23, 2011
That’s a great question and I’m glad you’re taking the initiative to educate yourself.
First, there are two strains of HSV you should know about: HSV-1 and HSV-2. The first type causes the vast majority of oral herpes infections, while HSV-2 is at the root of most genital herpes infections. But it’s important to note that, recently, HSV-1 has been causing a growing number of genital herpes infections...especially in young women.
So, for clarity, let’s talk specifically about how people get genital herpes…
Genital herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV), which can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
Herpes typically infects the skin around the genitals or around the mouth. So, if your mouth or genitals come into direct contact with the mouth or genitals of an infected person, transmission is possible.
Although transmission is more likely when herpes symptoms like sores or blisters are present, it’s still possible to contract HSV even when these symptoms aren’t visible. Why? Because HSV doesn’t always cause obvious signs or symptoms...and the virus is contagious to others, regardless of whether symptoms are apparent.
How can you prevent genital herpes? Condoms can help…but they aren’t foolproof. Remember that herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, and condoms only cover the skin of the penis. That means if someone you have sex with has herpes, transmission is still possible even if you’re using protection.
If the person you’re intimate with knows of their herpes infection, they can reduce the risk of passing it to you by also taking suppressive antiviral therapy. Combined with using condoms, this can reduce the risk of transmission to sexual partners.
If you or a partner aren’t sure if you have herpes, it’s a good idea to get tested. We offer the Herpes Simplex Virus Type-Specific HSV-1/2 IgG blood test which can identify herpes antibodies in the blood and tell you if you’re infected.
For more about herpes transmission and herpes testing, you may want to browse our our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.
Thanks for your question, and I wish you good luck and good health.
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.