For many of those who suffer from herpes simplex 1 or herpes simplex 2 (HSV-1, HSV-2), the thought of spreading the virus to someone else is constant and worrisome. Just how easy is it to spread to another person? This article examines that question. In order to understand how easy it is to infect someone with either type of herpes, it is important to understand how they both work in terms of transmission.
To begin, it should be understood that both types of virus can be spread easily to another when the contact site is the site of preference. HSV-1, also commonly known as oral herpes, will most easily spread if it comes in contact with the oral (mouth) area of a person. HSV-2, commonly known as genital herpes, will spread more readily when it comes into contact in the genital area. However, both types of viruses can be spread if contact is made to other parts of the body, but the incidence of infection is much lower when contact is made outside the preferred contact zone.
It should also be understood that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are more contagious during times of active outbreaks. Please note that the spread of either virus can still occur during periods of non-active outbreaks, only it is done so at less frequency. For instance, one study showed that oral herpes can be spread via shedding in the saliva at around five percent of the time, even when the person shows no signs of symptoms. For those with HSV-2, during the first year, they can shed the virus from their genital area for a period of six to ten percent of the time when they show no active symptoms. This rate goes down, however, over time.
In terms of easy of transmission, it is generally thought that the spread of HSV-1 occurs more often and easier than the spread of HSV-2. The reason for this is that the spread of HSV-1 can occur with a simple friendly kiss. This is often considered the main avenue of infection when this type of herpes is seen in children. A relative who has the virus gives the child a kiss, which is entirely normal in our society, and the child picks up the virus. Those who have never had an infection of herpes (either type) will be more susceptible to infection as they have no immune defense against the viruses. It should be noted, though, that studies suggest that by the teen years, more than fifty percent of US teens have the HSV-1 antibody within their blood system. At age 50 and above, between 80 and 90 percent of Americans have the antibody within their blood system.
When we compare this to HSV-2 we see that infection is almost always after the childhood years. Infection for HSV-2 usually takes place during the years when people are sexually engaged in various activities. If a person had HSV-1 in the past, that person may be less prone to infection of HSV-2 simply because they already have the antibody in their blood. This is not always the case, however! Some sixty percent of those who had a prior HSV-1 infection will still get the HSV-2 infection if exposed to it.
In terms of ease of transmission, it must be noted that HSV-1 can easily spread to the genitalia via oral sex. The notion that one cannot get this type of herpes via sex is simply not true. In some countries, Great Britain and Japan for instance, genital HSV-1 runs at about the same rate of genital HSV-2 infections.
Some recent studies have suggested that it is much harder to transmit one type of the virus to a particular area (oral or genital) if that area already has an infection. In other words, while it is not impossible to acquire HSV-2 if HSV-1 is present in the genital area, it may be much harder for the new virus to take hold in that already infected area.
One issue that might surprise many people is what often (or often does not) happen when two people engage in oral sex and one of them has genital HSV-2. Studies suggest that if the non-infected person performs oral sex on the infected person he or she is not likely to get oral HSV-2 as one might expect. Note: this only applies to oral sex, not traditional sex. The vast majority (nearly 100 percent) of HSV-2 is genital in nature, not oral. The reason behind this is thought to be that most adults already have at least some HSV-1 antibodies which help to protect them from HSV-2 infections (transmitted via oral sex).
While this may all sound a bit confusing, it is important information to know. Take for instance this scenario: A person acquires the genital HSV-1 virus due to oral sex. Is it now possible for that same person to transmit the virus to his or her partner via genital sex? The answer is yes! This is an example of the virus taking hold in a non-preferred site as mentioned above.
One last thought on the ease of transmission of HSV-1 and HSV-2. Many people believe that HSV-1 will remain a prevalent problem in our society simply because of the way it is transmitted. Our society looks at the friendly kiss, and even the sexy kiss, as normal, everyday occurrences and virtually no one takes any action to prevent infection through a kiss. The same cannot be said about HSV-2 which many people consider the bad type of herpes as it most often involves some form of sexual activity. In reality, there isn’t much difference between the types of herpes other than how people get them and that can make some people very uncomfortable. Those who have HSV-2 are often stigmatized, and this may cause them to delay treatment or even cause them to not inform a sexual partner of their virus. This is often considered one of the main reasons the spread of HSV-2 is rising. People are simply not being honest with their partners.