How Common Is Herpes? (2023)

Herpes is a recurrent, contagious viral infection that causes small ulcers and blisters around the mouth or genital area. Herpes infection is widespread in the United States and worldwide. Typically when people think of herpes, they think of genital herpes, but herpes can also cause lesions around the mouth known as cold sores.

This article will discuss herpes facts and statistics, including oral and genital herpes. It will also go into how the viruses are transmitted and treated. Finally, learn how likely a person is to contract herpes.

How Common Is Herpes? (1)

Herpes Facts

Two different herpes viruses lead to oral and genital herpes. Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) causes oral herpes, leading to cold sores around the mouth. Genital herpes can occur from HSV-1 and herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), leading to painful ulcers and blisters in the genital and anal areas.

HSV-1, the virus that causes oral herpes, is typically acquired in childhood. It is more common for a person to have HSV-1, mainly because oral herpes can be transmitted by kissing, even through a tiny kiss on a child's cheek. Additionally, HSV-1 can spread to the genitals through oral sex.

HSV-2 and HIV

People with HSV-2 infection are at greater risk of acquiring and transmitting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Most people with oral and genital herpes do not have any symptoms, but when symptoms develop, people have blisters and ulcers at the infection site.

The blisters on the mouth are generally inside and around the lips. Ulcers in the genital region develop in the vaginal, penile, or anal areas. People will also notice tenderness and swelling in the groin, which indicates swollen lymph nodes.

Herpes Statistics

Infection with HSV is extremely common. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 67% (3.7 billion) of people under age 50 have HSV-1, and 13% (491 million) of people between ages 15 and 49 have HSV-2.

(Video) How Common Is Herpes Really? | Report Card | RIOT

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that, in 2018, there were 572,000 new genital herpes infections in people between ages 14 and 49.

How Is Herpes Transmitted?

Herpes is spread from contact with a person who has the infection. The virus more easily spreads through an open sore, but it can be passed to another person through saliva from someone with oral herpes and genital fluids from someone with genital herpes. Oral herpes can be spread by oral contact with the genital area.

Herpes Can Spread Even Without Open Sores

It is possible to acquire herpes from somebody who does not have a current outbreak of open sores.

The herpes virus can also be transmitted to a fetus or newborn (this is called vertical transmission). While the transmission can happen during pregnancy, it most often occurs during delivery when the person giving birth has an active herpes infection.

Contact with genital lesions during delivery can lead to infection in the baby, which can be deadly. Therefore, it is best to take medication to prevent an outbreak during delivery or have a cesarean section.

What Are Your Chances of Getting Herpes?

Oral and genital herpes are common in the United States, particularly in people between ages 14 and 49. A study from 2015 to 2016 noted the prevalence was approximately 48% for HSV-1 and 12% for HSV-2 in this age group.

Genital herpes is more common in women than men. Experts indicate the virus seems more easily transmitted from men to women than from women to men during penile-vaginal sex.

People with asymptomatic infections shed the virus, and it is commonly transmitted by a person without symptoms, who may not know they have HSV. But it is also important to pay attention to whether a sexual partner has open oral or genital lesions.

A person is more likely to acquire HSV-1 from a person with active oral lesions. The chances are higher a person will acquire HSV-2 from a person with active genital lesions.

It is always wise to use condoms during sex. The chance of transmitting the virus during protected sex is significantly lower than during condomless sex.However, virus shedding from areas not covered by the condom can lead to transmission.

Is Herpes Treatable?

Herpes is not curable. The virus remains in the body for life. People with oral and genital herpes live with intermittent outbreaks and periods of dormancy. During dormancy, the virus resides in nerve cells without causing symptoms. The frequency of episodes depends on an individual, the person's underlying health conditions, and certain stressors.

(Video) 3 Common Myths About Genital Herpes

However, antiviral medication can shorten the duration of outbreaks or prevent outbreaks in people who have them often. Preventive treatment can also reduce the risk of transmission to a sexual partner.

Treatment options include:

  • Valtrex (valacyclovir) is the most widely used.
  • Zovirax (acyclovir) needs to be taken several more times during the day but is usually cheaper.
  • Famvir (famciclovir) is more often used to treat shingles (also caused by a herpes virus) but is still effective in treating HSV-1 and HSV-2.

All of these medications are equally effective in treating and preventing herpes. Treatment typically lasts seven to 10 days.

Treatment for herpes is most effective when started within one day of symptom onset or during the prodrome. The prodrome is the period in which some people can tell they are about to have an outbreak because they begin to feel achy and might have pain or tingling in the genital area before blisters appear.

Some people have frequent outbreaks of herpes that can be debilitating and painful. People who have six or more recurrences per year or a weakened immune system benefit from daily preventative therapy. This regimen means taking antiviral oral medication every day to prevent outbreaks.

Complications of Herpes Infection

Complications of herpes infection include:

  • Encephalitis: Infection of the brain tissue
  • Herpes keratitis: Developing an ulcer on the eye that can lead to blindness
  • Other skin problems: Herpetic whitlow, erythema multiforme, and eczema herpeticum

If a person does not receive treatment for herpes, the lesions will go away on their own. However, a person never gets rid of the virus. It stays in nerve cells.

Rarely herpes infection can spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain, where it can lead to encephalitis and brain inflammation. Neonates and people with weakened immune systems have the most significant risk for this complication.

Outside of antiviral therapy, people can treat the pain associated with herpes outbreaks with Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen). A cool compress to the genital area can relieve the burning pain. People with open sores that burn during urination can try urinating in a tub of water instead.

People can treat oral herpes sores with topical numbing medicines and lip balm.

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It is also vital to keep oral and genital sores clean with regular soap and water to avoid an additional bacterial infection. Do not pick at the sores. Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing.


Herpes is a widespread, contagious, recurrent viral infection that causes ulcers and blisters around the mouth and genital area. Two different viruses cause these symptoms. HSV-1 causes oral and genital herpes, and HSV-2 causes genital herpes.

The viruses are transmitted through kissing, sex, and a pregnant person to the fetus or newborn. Herpes is a lifelong infection, but people can manage outbreaks with antiviral therapy.

A Word From Verywell

It can be very stressful when you find out you have genital herpes. Oral herpes is also uncomfortable since the lesions are noticeable to other people. These infections are very common, and you are not alone. They are treatable, and you can reduce the number of outbreaks with antiviral medication.

Speak with your healthcare provider about treatments. Use a condom during sex.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What percentage of the population has acquired the herpes virus?

    Worldwide, 67% of people under age 50 live with HSV-1, and 13% of people between ages 15 and 50 live with HSV-2. In the United States, among people aged 14 to 49, 48% live with HSV-1, and 12% live with HSV-2.

    Learn More:Herpes Facts and Statistics

    (Video) Herpes (oral & genital) - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, pathology
  • What country has the highest rate of herpes?

    The highest rates of HSV-1 infections occur in Southeast Asia. The highest rates of HSV-2 infections occur in Africa.

  • Does herpes get less contagious over time?

    People with herpes have the virus for life. The frequency and duration of outbreaks shorten over time, but a person remains contagious, especially during an outbreak.

    Learn More:Herpes Causes and Risk Factors

    (Video) Genital Herpes Myths & Facts | STDs


How common is herpes? ›

How common is genital herpes? Genital herpes infection is common in the United States. CDC estimated that there were 572,000 new genital herpes infections in the United States in a single year. Nationwide, 11.9 % of persons aged 14 to 49 years have HSV-2 infection (12.1% when adjusted for age).

What percent of people test positive for herpes? ›

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48% of the population in the U.S. has HSV-1, while 12% has HSV-2. It is possible that many more people have HSV-1 than this, since asymptomatic infections are common and many people get the virus in childhood and never know they have it.

What percent of adults get herpes? ›

Fifty percent to 80 percent of U.S. adults have oral herpes. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 90 percent of adults have been exposed to the virus by age 50. Once infected, a person will have herpes simplex virus for the rest of his or her life.

How hard is it to get herpes? ›

Herpes is easily spread from skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. You can get it when your genitals and/or mouth touch their genitals and/or mouth — usually during oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

Should I be worried about herpes? ›

Herpes isn't deadly and it usually doesn't cause any serious health problems. While herpes outbreaks can be annoying and painful, the first flare-up is usually the worst. For many people, outbreaks happen less over time and may eventually stop completely.

Is herpes contagious all the time? ›

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are most contagious when sores are present, but can also be transmitted when no symptoms are felt or visible. For sexually active people, consistent and correct use of condoms is the best way to prevent genital herpes and other STIs.

Why do doctors not test for herpes more? ›

Herpes. For herpes, according to CDC guidelines, testing only occurs if there are symptoms and there are several reasons for this distinction. First, research shows diagnosing herpes in someone without symptoms does not change that person's sexual behavior and doesn't prevent herpes from spreading.

What percentage of Americans have herpes? ›

HSV-1 and HSV-2 are both known to cause genital herpes. It is estimated that, in the United States, 47.8% of people aged 14–49 have HSV-1, while 11.9% of Americans in the same age group have HSV-2 (WHO, 2017). Theoretically, this means that over 195 million people in the United States might have genital herpes.

How unreliable are herpes tests? ›

While herpes blood tests offer a high level of accuracy, they are not infallible. Moreover, if you have symptoms, they may not be as useful or informative as an HSV viral culture or PCR test (both of which can detect HSV in a swab of fluid from a herpes sore).

How long does it take for herpes to show up in males? ›

Initial herpes symptoms usually show up 2 to 20 days after you're infected. But it may be years before the first symptoms appear. Herpes sores usually heal in a few weeks. But the virus stays in your body – and it can flare up and cause sores again.

Does herpes get less contagious over time? ›

Some participants shed no virus at all, but shedding was relatively common at two months, with the participants shedding HSV-1 on 12% of days. At 11 months, however, the rate had fallen to 7% of days. In most instances, participants did not have symptoms even though they were shedding virus.

Is it easier to get herpes from a man or woman? ›

The general rate of transmission of a person who has had herpes to their regular partner is about 10 percent per year, but the annual rate rises if the infected partner is a male. Unfairly, the female partner has a 20 percent chance of becoming infected, while the male partner's risk is less than 10 percent.

Do you have to tell someone you have herpes legally? ›

You are only required to tell the person you have herpes if you engage in sexual conduct.

Why is it easy to get herpes? ›

Herpes is most easily spread when you have blisters and open sores on your body, though it is also possible to spread the virus when you have no symptoms. If you have oral herpes, do not share utensils, glasses, water bottles, towels, lip balm, or razors, especially when you have an outbreak.

Should I stay away from someone with herpes? ›

Even when no sores are present, the herpes virus is still active in the body and can spread to others. If you or your partner has herpes, reduce the risk of spread by: using a condom every time you have sex (vaginal, oral, or anal).

Do healthy people get herpes? ›

Did you know that the virus that causes “cold sores” or “fever blisters” on or around the mouth can also infect other areas of the body? The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus. And it's very common.

Will herpes ever be cured? ›

Genital Herpes Treatment and Care

There is no cure for genital herpes. However, daily use of antiviral medicines can prevent or shorten outbreaks. Antiviral medicines also can reduce the chance of spreading it to others.

Can I still receive oral with herpes? ›

Oral herpes is transmitted through direct contact between the contagious area and broken skin (a cut or break) and mucous membrane tissue (such as the mouth or genitals). In other words, HSV can be passed on through kissing or oral sex.

What are the chances of spreading herpes without an outbreak? ›

Yes. To prevent transmission of herpes, we recommend that condoms be used 100% of the time. Many patients will shed the virus and be contagious when they don't have symptoms. Studies have shown that asymptomatic shedding occurs between 1% and 3% of the time in patients with HSV II genital infections.

What are the chances of passing herpes on Valtrex? ›

Study data shows that people with symptomatic herpes who take valacyclovir are almost 50% less likely to transmit the virus to others than non-medicated people with herpes. In one study, the HSV-2 acquisition rate was reduced from 3.6% to 1.9% using valacyclovir treatment.

Do most people get tested for herpes? ›

Testing for it is widely considered unnecessary. Unlike STIs like human papillomavirus (HPV), which are known to cause cervical cancer, herpes doesn't cause life-threatening conditions.

Do you only test positive for herpes during an outbreak? ›

If you have the herpes virus and your body has produced antibodies, it can be detected on a blood test, even if you have no symptoms. The only time the virus might not be detected on a test (after you've contracted it) is if you've been tested too early.

Can you test positive for herpes and never have an outbreak? ›

Many people who test positive for herpes antibodies have no symptoms; often, they can't recall even a single outbreak.

What percentage of men have herpes? ›

HSV-2 infection is more common in women (approximately 1 out of 5 women) than in men (almost 1 out of 9). This may be because male-to-female transmission is easier than female-to-male transmission. HSV-2 infection is also more common in the black population and least common among Asians.

Who has the highest rate of herpes? ›

HSV-2 is more common in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe or the North America. Up to 82% of women and 53% of men in Sub-Saharan Africa are seropositive for HSV-2. These are the highest levels of HSV-2 infection in the world, although exact levels vary from country to country in this continent.

Can you pass herpes and test negative? ›

If the infection occurred very recently (within a few weeks to 3 months), the test may be negative, but you may still be infected. This is called a false negative. It can take up to 3 months after a possible herpes exposure for this test to be positive.

Can you test negative for STD and still have herpes? ›

You may still have an HSV infection if your results were normal. It may mean the sample didn't have enough of the virus to be detected. If you still have symptoms of herpes, you may need to get tested again. Positive/Abnormal.

How often is herpes false positive? ›

Meanwhile, the CDC and the US Preventive Services Task Force concur that the most widely available herpes test, called HerpeSelect, should not be used to screen asymptomatic people because of its high risk of false positives: Up to 1 in 2 positive tests could be false, according to the USPSTF's most recent guidelines.

How often do males have herpes outbreaks? ›

The average number of outbreaks for a person with genital HSV-2 is four to five per year. The average for genital HSV-1 is less than one outbreak per year. Usually, there are more outbreaks during the first year, and many people find that outbreaks become less severe and less frequent with time.

How do you keep herpes dormant? ›

Reducing Outbreaks
  1. Get plenty of sleep. This helps keep your immune system strong.
  2. Eat healthy foods. Good nutrition also helps your immune system stay strong.
  3. Keep stress low. Constant stress can weaken your immune system.
  4. Protect yourself from the sun, wind, and extreme cold and heat.

How often do you shed with herpes? ›

For instance, one team found that females with recent HSV-2 genital infections shed virus on 28 percent of days on average. Males with recent HSV-2 genital infections, or a history of frequent herpes outbreaks, were found to shed virus on 32 percent of days on average. Other studies have had similar findings.

Does herpes go away with age? ›

Remember that genital herpes is a lifelong disease.

Even though you may not have a genital herpes outbreak for long periods of time, you can still pass the virus to another person at any time. Talk with your doctor or nurse about how to prevent passing the virus to another person.

Can you spread herpes without shedding? ›

While people with asymptomatic herpes infections may not experience any symptoms, they can still spread the virus to other people through oral-to-oral or sexual contact. While the risk of virus transmission is lower in asymptomatic people, “shedding episodes” can still occur.

What percentage of the US population has herpes? ›

During 2015–2016, prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) was 47.8%, and prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) was 11.9%. Prevalence of both HSV-1 and HSV-2 increased with age. Prevalence of both HSV-1 and HSV-2 was higher among females than males.

Do 99% of people have herpes? ›

Worldwide, ∼90% of people have one or both viruses. HSV-1 is the more prevalent virus, with 65% of persons in the United States having antibodies to HSV-1 (Xu et al., 2002).

Can you be exposed to herpes and not get it? ›

It is not possible to prevent all exposure to herpes simplex. The virus is common, and is not always transmitted via sexual contact. Many people who have HSV-1 do not even know they were exposed.

Is herpes still contagious after 20 years? ›

Herpes can remain dormant for years. In some cases, the infection may never show any symptoms. But you can still transmit herpes to others even if it is dormant, although the risk is lower. People with genital herpes may take viral suppression medication to reduce the risk of transmission to a sexual partner.


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