For many of us, the word herpes seems to instantly connect with a STD and rightfully so. Genital herpes is a common STD and affects almost one in five Americans from the age of 16 to 49 years. But herpes, or herpes simplex, is not always sexually transmitted. In fact, one of the common types of herpes simplex can cause nasty sores on your lip and around your mouth but may have absolutely nothing to do with intercourse. It is important to understand the difference and not immediately panic when the word herpes is mentioned.
Types of Herpes Simplex
Firstly it is important to understand that herpes simplex is a virus and there are two types – herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2). HSV-1 is more likely to affect the mouth and cause cold sores while HSV-2 is more likely to affect the genitals and be sexually transmitted. However, HSV-1 could still cause genital infections and HSV-2 could cause oral infections in a minority of cases. So neither of the viruses are specific to a particular area of the body.
Genital herpes is classified as a STD but oral herpes is not. Nevertheless the degree of overlap in the symptoms, location and transmission does not mean that oral herpes cannot be sexually transmitted. More importantly though it is imperative to understand the differences between the two types of herpes simplex viruses. The word herpes should not be immediately associated with sexual activity and it should also not be assumed to be a sign of promiscuity.
Transmission of Herpes Virus
The herpes simplex virus, both HSV-1 and HSV-2, are transmitted with direct contact. That means when one person makes contact with the lesions caused by the virus on an infected person, they are at risk of contracting the infection. This direct contact may include sexual intercourse but the virus can also be transmitted through inanimate objects, like when sharing utensils or towels. However, it is important to understand which of these modes of transmission applies to each type of herpes simplex virus.
HSV-1, which is responsible for cold sores, can be transmitted from skin-to-skin contact like during kissing, with sharing utensils and towels and especially where the skin may be pierced like with razors. However, this transmission of HSV-1 is more likely to happen when a person has an active lesion which is oozing a discharge. This is the most contagious time and skin-to-skin contact should be avoided as far as possible. The virus can be spread to the genitals during acts like oral intercourse.
HSV-2, which is responsible for genital herpes, is usually transmitted during sexual intercourse. Infection can even occur as a baby passes down the birth canal of an infected mother during childbirth. Overall HSV-2 is a very contagious strain and can be spread even if a person does not have open sores on the genitalia. Unlike with HSV-1, it is not transmitted through inanimate objects like towels. HSV-2 can be spread to the mouth area during acts like oral sex.
It is important to note that while HSV-2 is more likely to be seen in a person with multiple sexual partners, the same does not apply to HSV-1. In this light it is fair to say that while HSV-2 (genital herpes virus) is a STD, HSV-1 (oral herpes) may be considered to be sexually transmitted when it appears on the genitals. However, this does not make HSV-1 a STD as such.