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Herpes simplex: Who gets and causes


Who gets herpes simplex?

Most people get HSV-1 (herpes simplex type 1) as an infant or child. This virus can be spread by skin-to-skin contact with an adult who carries the virus. An adult does not have to have sores to spread the virus.

A person usually gets HSV-2 (herpes simplex type 2) through sexual contact. About 20% of sexually active adults in the United States carry HSV-2. Some people are more likely to get HSV-2. These people:

  • Are female

  • Have had many sex partners

  • Had sex for the first time at a young age

  • Have (or had) another sexually transmitted infection

  • Have a weakened immune system due to a disease or medicine

What causes herpes simplex?

Herpes simplex viruses spread from person to person through close contact. You can get a herpes simplex virus from touching a herpes sore. Most people, however, get herpes simplex from an infected person who does not have sores. Doctors call this “asymptomatic viral shedding.”

How people get herpes around their mouth

A person with HSV-1 (herpes simplex type 1) can pass it to someone else by:

  • Kissing

  • Touching the person’s skin, such as pinching a child’s cheek

  • Sharing objects such as silverware, lip balm, or a razor

How people get herpes on their genitals

You can get genital herpes after coming into contact with HSV-1 or HSV-2. Most people get genital herpes from HSV-2, which they get during sex. If someone has a cold sore and performs oral sex, this can spread HSV-1 to the genitals, and cause herpes sores on the genitals.

Mothers can give the herpes virus to their baby during childbirth. If the baby is born during the mother's first episode of genital herpes, the baby can have serious problems.

What happens once you have HSV-1 or HSV-2?

Once a person becomes infected with a herpes virus, the virus never leaves the body. After the first outbreak, the virus moves from the skin cells to nerve cells. The virus stays in the nerve cells forever. But it usually just stays there. In this stage, the virus is said to be dormant, or asleep. But it can become active again.

Some things that can trigger (wake up) the virus are:

  • Stress

  • Illness

  • Fever

  • Sun exposure

  • Menstrual periods

  • Surgery

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