Oral and genital herpes can be transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact, and that includes kissing.
You can get herpes from someone even if they show no symptoms or visible sores.
While possible, it is highly unlikely for herpes to spread through objects like utensils, towels, or toilet seats.
When it comes to herpes transmission, it's important to get the facts straight. Understanding how this common sexually transmitted disease spreads can ensure you and others stay safe, and prompt you to get the right treatment to help manage the disease.
A person can contract herpes through direct contact, which means it is possible to become infected if you kiss a person that has the virus.
Read on to learn more about how herpes spreads, the measures you can take to prevent transmission, and what to do if you are infected.
Quick fact: Herpes is very common infection. An estimated 12% of people 14 to 49 years old in the US reportedly have genital herpes. Oral herpes is even more common, affecting about 48% of people in the same age range.
There are two kinds of herpes: HSV-1, or oral herpes, and HSV-2, or genital herpes. Both types can make cold sores and blisters pop up on or around the mouth, genitals, or rectum.
According to the CDC, the intial stage of herpes infection is four days after exposure. Oral and genital herpes are most contagious during this "outbreak" phase, whether or not the person is showing visible symptoms.
How herpes spreads
Oral herpes (HSV-1) is mainly transmitted through saliva (sexual or non-sexual) or mouth-to-mouth contact. Oral herpes can also cause genital herpes through oral sex.
Genital herpes (HSV-2) is almost always transmitted by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone carrying the virus, but can also spread through kissing.
"Both oral herpes and genital herpes are transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact and cause cold sores around the infected area," says Leena Nathan, MD, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Health. "Historically, Type 1 has been associated with oral herpes, but nowadays we're seeing both types in both locations."
Can you get herpes from kissing?
Since herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact with infected areas or contact with saliva, you can get herpes from kissing.
This is because both types of herpes virus enter the body through tiny injuries in the skin or a mucous membrane, such as inside the mouth, genital, or anal areas.
Though you're most likely to get oral or genital herpes from someone undergoing an outbreak, both types "spread by direct contact, and there does not always have to be a lesion," Nathan says. "There can be viral particles in sexual secretions."
Important: Because the virus doesn't live long outside the body, it is nearly impossible to get it from objects like toilet seats and towels.
How to prevent transmission
The only way to completely protect yourself from both types of herpes is to avoid skin-to-skin contact. While it is unlikely for herpes to spread through inanimate objects, keep in mind that herpes can spread through saliva, so it's best to avoid sharing things like toothbrushes and eating utensils. Other protective measures include:
Condom use during sex
Dental dam use during oral sex
Using a water-based lubricant during sex - oil-based lubricants can weaken latex
Symptoms of herpes
While there are telltale signs of herpes simplex infection, many people are asymptomatic. In fact, in the US, an estimated 87.4% of 14 to 49-year-olds infected with genital herpes have never received a clinical diagnosis.
Signs of infection for both herpes simplex 1 and 2 are:
Flu-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, body aches, or low-grade fever
Tingling or burning in the area before blisters appear
Pain during urination (for genital herpes)
Painful, fluid-filled sores - for oral herpes, they usually appear on the lips and around the mouth Genital herpes appears on the genitals, buttocks, or anus.
Diagnosis and treatment
If you have contracted the herpes virus, when your symptoms show up and how long they last will depend on the type of herpes.
During an outbreak, herpes simplex can often be diagnosed just by looking at the sores. To confirm that a patient has herpes simplex, a doctor may take a swab from a sore. If no sores are visible, a blood test can confirm infection. While a blood test shows the exposure or presence of herpes infection, it cannot exactly confirm a current lesion is due to herpes. However, the blood test is an antibody test, so if you have ever been exposed or infected, the test will remain positive forever.
Herpes is what's called a chronic infection, meaning that once you contract the virus, you will never be rid of it. Put another way, there is no cure for herpes.
However, you can manage symptoms and reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks with certain medications.
Oral herpes and genital herpes can be treated with:
Oral herpes can also be treated with topical medications, such as:
Important: Though it is very rare, herpes simplex can cause additional health issues - like meningitis and encephalitis - if it invades a part of the body other than the areas near the genitals and mouth. For example, if you touch your sores or the fluids from the sores, you may transfer herpes to another part of your body, such as your eyes.
Pregnant women with genital herpes also run the risk of transmitting it to their babies, which - while it is rare - can be deadly for infants. Those who are thinking of trying to get pregnant, or who are already pregnant, should discuss this with their doctors.
Both oral and genital herpes are extremely contagious and spread from skin-to-skin contact. Though they can both spread through kissing, contracting genital herpes this way is rare.
While herpes is a chronic condition, both symptoms and chances of transmission can be reduced with various treatments.
"If someone has a sore that looks like herpes, avoid direct contact because that's probably the easiest way one would catch the virus," Nathan says. "If you suspect you have it, it is important to go see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment."
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