How Herpes Spreads

HSV can be spread from a genital sore to the lips or from a cold sore to the genital area. You become infected when the virus enters your body through a break in the skin or through moist areas such as the mouth, anus, and vagina. Even very small breaks in the skin allow the virus to infect the body.

Here are some of the ways the herpes virus can spread:

  • Any direct contact with an herpes infection.
  • Kissing, touching or caressing active areas.
  • Sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex).
  • Cold sores or mouth herpes can be spread by sharing the same drinking glass, lipstick, cigarettes, etc.
  • From mother to baby during childbirth.

You are most likely to spread HSV when you have a sore or blister during either a primary or recurrent outbreak. However, many people with genital herpes have time periods when they can spread the virus even though they do not have blisters or sores present. Some people can spread the infection when they do not recognize that they have a genital herpes sore or when they have symptoms (such as painful urination) that are not typical of genital herpes.
Newborns can be infected with HSV at birth. This usually happens when a woman has her primary outbreak close to the time of delivery and the baby is delivered through the vagina. Usually, in these cases the woman either does not have symptoms or is unaware of symptoms. The chance of passing the virus to the baby is greatly reduced (less than 1% of the time) during recurrent outbreaks, which occur after women have been infected previously. Babies infected with the virus at birth are at risk for serious health problems.

You can also spread the virus from the location of an outbreak to other locations on your body when you touch your own sores. Fingers, eyes, and other body areas can accidentally become infected in this way. The spreading of genital herpes by such things as soap, towels, clothing, bed sheets, toilet seats, and spa surfaces is highly unlikely because the herpes simplex virus cannot live very long outside of the body. Remember, herpes is generally spread by direct contact.

Herpes is most easily spread when a sore is present, but, it is also often spread at other times too. Some people notice itching, tingling or other sensations before they see anything on their skin. These are called prodromal symptoms and they warn that virus may be present on the skin. Herpes is most likely to be spread from the time these first symptoms are noticed until the area is completely healed and the skin looks normal again. Sexual contact (oral, vaginal, or anal) is very risky during this time.