Herpes 1 + 2 guide

What is Herpes?

Herpes is one of the most common and contagious STDs in the United States and is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with HSV-2.

HSV-1 usually causes cold sores and blisters on the mouth...in fact, many people are infected during childhood in a social situation, like receiving a kiss from an infected relative. Most HSV-2 infections occur in adulthood and cause sores on the vagina, penis and surrounding skin. Herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, or unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex...the virus can enter the body through breaks in the skin or mucous membranes.

While herpes is not curable, it is not life-threatening in adults...it can be treated and managed with antiviral medications that can prevent or shorten the duration of outbreaks, and decrease the risk of spreading the infection to others. Depending on the severity of outbreaks, no treatment may be necessary...but there's a chance that herpes can evolve into serious health problems, from meningitis to encephalitis. It's also possible for an infected mother to transmit herpes to her baby, potentially causing blindness, brain damage...even death.

Additionally, herpes can increase the risk of getting other STDs, like HIV...so the earlier herpes is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be treated.


Last reviewed by Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.

Lisa Oldson, MD

STD expert

"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."