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How Common Is Herpes?

You may be surprised to learn that herpes is quite common in the United States, and herpesvirus infections are widespread. There is no known cure for herpes, and no matter which strain is contracted, it is a lifelong condition. Antiviral treatments help reduce outbreak length and severity, and the adherence to preventative measures make living with herpesvirus more manageable than ever.

In total, there are well over 100 different strains of the herpesvirus, and eight of them can be contracted by humans. Two of the most common forms of herpes are oral (herpes simplex type 1 or HSV-1) and genital (herpes simplex type 2 or HSV-2). Nearly one in six people between the ages of 14 to 49 live with genital herpes. Oral herpes is even more common: approximately one out of two people in the U.S. live with oral herpes.

Herpesvirus Explained

The word “herpes” is derived from the Greek “herpein,” which means “to creep.” The herpes virus contains well-adapted pathogens that are found just about everywhere and have a recurrent nature, meaning the virus can go dormant for a period of time before an outbreak is experienced. Because of this, most people may not experience symptoms and not be aware they are infected. Outbreaks show up as painful blisters or sores at the site, and the herpes virus is more contagious when symptoms are present.

Different Types of Herpesvirus

Of the 100 known types of herpesvirus, eight of them can infect humans. If you are infected with one herpes virus, it doesn’t mean you’ll get another. The most common versions of the herpesvirus are oral and genital herpes.

  • Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1): Commonly referred to as oral herpes, this virus is usually experienced as cold sores or fever blisters on the mouth or face. HSV-1 can be passed via direct contact and is especially infectious during an outbreak. Some people naturally acquire HSV-1 and, if they do, it stays with them for the rest of their life. In some cases, genital herpes may be caused by HSV-1.
  • Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2): Known as genital herpes, HSV-2 manifests as sores or blisters on the genitals. This version of herpes is very common and, like HSV-1, can be spread even if a person shows no symptoms.

The following variations of the herpes virus are much less common. It may surprise you to learn how many other infections are forms of herpes.

  • Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV/HHV-3): The Varicella-Zoster virus is an acute infection that leads to chickenpox (varicella). A contagious virus, VZV is spread through contact with a lesion or through respiratory droplets. 90% of people contract chickenpox in childhood, and once the virus is in the body, it continues to live there and may eventually reappear in adulthood as shingles (HHV-3), a more serious form of varicella-zoster.
  • Epstein-Barr (EBV/HHV-4): EBV is another common infection and is known for causing mononucleosis, or mono. EBV infects human b-lymphocytes and epithelial cells and is spread through bodily fluids, especially saliva. EBV can be spread through kissing or from sharing utensils or toothbrushes. EBV can also be spread through blood and semen as well as blood transfusions and organ transplants.
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV/HHV-5): This version of herpesvirus infects 50-70% of adults, a fairly high percentage. CMV usually manifests in gastrointestinal issues, and because it is asymptomatic, many never know they have it.
  • Human Herpesvirus Type 6 (HBLV/HHV-6): This herpesvirus can cause roseola infantum, a viral infection that can cause a high fever and a rash that appears in children between 6 months and 2 years old. HBLV appears abruptly and is accompanied by high fever for 3-5 days followed by a rash on the torso that spreads to the face and limbs as the fever subsides.
  • Human Herpesvirus Type 7 (HHV-7): This strain infects children by the age of 3 and is passed through saliva. Similar to HHV-6, HHV-7 has been associated with roseola. While there are no definable symptoms, HHV-7 can aggravate other types of existent herpes.
  • Human Herpesvirus Type 8 (KSHV/HHV-8): In the US, the infection rate for KSHV is very low. KSHV may lead to Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of connective tissue cancer, and produces malignant lesions.

How Herpes Is Spread

Herpes can be transmitted through oral contact or contact with herpetic sores or blisters. Herpes can be spread through saliva or genital secretions, even if there are no accompanying symptoms. Herpes cannot be spread through toilets, swimming pools, or by touching objects like soap or utensils.

How You Can Reduce Your Risk

The best practice to avoid spreading genital herpes is to avoid sex during an outbreak. Minimize the spread of oral herpes by avoiding oral contact (kissing, oral sex) during an outbreak, and don’t share objects that may contain saliva, such as toothbrushes. Remember that oral herpes can cause genital herpes if mouth sores come in contact with genitals during an outbreak.

Avoid contracting genital herpes by abstaining from sex with infected partners during an outbreak. If you are infected with genital herpes, avoid transferring the virus to your partner by using condoms.  To reduce the risk of infection overall, abstain from sexual contact at the first sign of outbreak symptoms such as burning or itching.

Antiviral treatments, like valacyclovir, have been proven to reduce the risk of transmission and the frequency of outbreaks. If you’ve been previously diagnosed with herpes, Nurx can prescribe oral or genital herpes treatment online and deliver the medication to your door with free shipping. To request herpes treatment from Nurx, get started here.

If you’re pregnant or considering getting pregnant and you have genital herpes, talk to your OB/GYN about treatments that can protect you from outbreaks and prevent your baby from becoming infected with herpes.

Herpes and Your Sex Life

It’s a myth that herpes only shows up in sexually active people, and the fact remains that herpes is much more common than you think. In fact, genital herpes is often contracted from people with oral herpes simply because they were unaware one could lead to the other. While it’s certainly inconvenient to have herpesvirus, it’s not the end of the world. With vigilance and preventative practices, those living with herpes can enjoy a full and active sex life.

Further Reading

Epstein-Barr Virus and Kaposi’s Sarcoma Herpesvirus/Human Herpesvirus 8 National Center for Biotechnology Information, 1997

Genital Herpes – STD Fact Sheet Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Herpes Simplex Virus World Health Organization, January, 2017

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