Healthy Living

How Is Genital Herpes Transmitted?

How Is Genital Herpes Transmitted?

Key Takeaways

  • Genital herpes is mostly transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact including oral, vaginal and anal sex.
  • Manual stimulation and masturbation can also lead to transmission of genital herpes. 
  • Breastfeeding mothers who have genital herpes may also transmit this infection to their baby if there is an active sore on the breasts.

Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. It is associated with blisters or sores on the genitals. People with genital herpes may also experience flu-like symptoms. Most people with genital herpes may not experience any symptoms and may go on living normally without actually knowing they have this disease. This is a major problem, as it increases the chances of them passing it to their sexual partner(s). 

Genital herpes is caused by an infection by the herpes simplex virus, type 1 or type 2, with a predominance of type 2. The virus enters the body through mucous membranes, where it causes lesions. Once the lesions have healed, the virus travels to the nerves, usually a ganglion of spinal nerves, where it remains dormant. However, the herpes simplex virus may be reactivated again, producing an outburst. Outbursts (recurrent infections) can be triggered by certain factors such as stress, menstruation, trauma, exposure to ultraviolet radiation and a weak immune system. During an outburst, the virus travels from the nerves to the skin that the nerve supplies, where it causes blisters or sores. The number of outbreaks a person experiences varies with an average of four to five outbreaks per year. Women have a higher risk of getting genital herpes than men.

Genital herpes is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact which mostly includes oral, vaginal and anal sex. In recent years, the number of cases of genital herpes caused by HSV1 has greatly increased, due to an increase in oral sex in western society. HSV2 is usually transmitted through anal and vaginal sex. However, it can also be transmitted through oral sex to the mouth, causing oral herpes.

Manual stimulation and masturbation can also lead to transmission of genital herpes. This is especially true if one touches an active sore and then touches his or her mucous membranes without washing their hands.

Another mode of transmission of genital herpes is known as asymptomatic transmission. This occurs when a person with herpes starts shedding the virus from the skin. During this period, the person might not necessarily have any symptoms. In fact most people do not experience any symptoms during this period. Any contact with the skin during this period can lead to transmission of the herpes simplex virus.

Genital herpes can also be spread from a mother to her baby during childbirth. Therefore, pregnant women with herpes should be closely monitored. If a pregnant woman transmits genital herpes to her child, it results in neonatal herpes. This is a serious condition that can cause brain damage, visual problems and in severe cases, death. A cesarean section may be performed to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission, especially if the expectant mother has lesions and sores in the cervix and vagina and is experiencing any other symptom of genital herpes. Breastfeeding mothers who have genital herpes may also transmit this infection to their baby if there is an active sore on the breasts.

Sharing bed linen, towels, utensils and toilet seats is less likely to result in transmission of the genital herpes. This is due to the fact that the virus cannot live outside the body and usually dies within a short period of time when it is shed from the body.

Prevention of genital herpes can be achieved by using latex condoms. They should be used properly to cover the affected area. Condoms, however, do not provide full protection and the virus may still be transmitted to a sex partner. The risk of passing the virus to a sex partner increases during an outburst. Thus it is important to avoid all forms of sexual relations, especially oral, anal and vaginal sex during this period. This can greatly decrease the risk of transmitting genital herpes. Another way of prevention is using anti-viral medications. These may include acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir. These medications prevent the herpes simplex virus from replicating. Taking a daily dosage of anti-viral drugs may also significantly reduce the number and severity of outbursts. Limiting your number of sexual partners can reduce the risk of not only contracting genital herpes but also other sexually transmitted infections (STDs).