Is herpes infectious even without an outbreak?
I got herpes 20 years ago, and I’ve been married twice without passing it on. But now I learned that herpes can be contagious even without an outbreak. I haven’t had an outbreak for about two years. Is it possible for me to infect a sexual partner even if I don’t show any symptoms?
Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP on September 19, 2011
Thanks for your question, and for your interest in reducing the risk of spreading your herpes infection to others.
Is herpes infectious even without an outbreak? The short answer is yes. Herpes can be contagious even if there aren’t any visible signs or symptoms. We call it asymptomatic viral shedding when the virus is released even without any visible skin changes.
So, how can you reduce the risk of passing herpes to a sexual partner? There are definitely things you can do to cut the risk of spreading your infection to others. For one, you may want to talk to your doctor about daily antiviral therapy, which will reduce the risk of passing herpes to someone else by about half. Using latex condoms and dental dams also reduces the risk of spreading herpes...combine treatment and safer sex practices, and you can cut the risk of transmission from an infected female partner to an uninfected male partner from 4% per year to closer to 1% per year.
Or, if the male partner is infected, the risk of transmission to an uninfected female partner is about 10% per year...but that risk can be reduced to approximately 2-3% with condoms, daily antiviral medication and avoiding sex during an outbreak.
You can learn more information about herpes transmission, prevention and treatment in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.
One more thing...
You mentioned that you haven’t spread herpes to your previous partners. Are you sure? Do you know whether your other partners have been tested for herpes type 1 and type 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2)?
The reason I ask is because 80-90% of people infected with HSV-2 aren’t aware of their infection and have never experienced signs or symptoms of herpes. Getting tested is the only way to know one’s STD status for sure.
I wish you good luck and good health, and I hope this information has helped answer your important question.
Medline Plus: Herpes Simplex
Warren is a Nurse Practitioner and owner of Westover Heights Clinic in Oregon. She is a renown expert and author in the field of genital herpes research, diagnosis and treatment. Warren was educated at Oregon Health and Sciences University and the University of Portland.