Genital Herpes Statistics You Should Know About

Genital herpes is a very common and highly contagious sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), HSV-1 virus (oral herpes) and HSV-2 virus (genital herpes).

HSV-1 is primarily transmitted through oral, skin-to-skin contact (kissing, cold sores, or oral sex), while HSV-2 is predominantly transmitted through sexual skin-to-skin contact (vaginal, anal, or oral sex). Both are incurable, so prevention is essential.

In this article, learn more about genital herpes, how many people have it, and other important statistics.

Young woman looking in the mirror at a cold sore outbreak from herpes.

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

How Many People Have Genital Herpes?

It is not entirely clear how many people have genital herpes because many infected people do not have symptoms. However, researchers have created estimates based on available data.

According to the most recent 2018 estimates (published in 2021), 18.6 million people in the United States have genital herpes, with 572,000 new infections occurring yearly among people aged 18 to 49.

Global Estimates

Global genital herpes infection estimates among people aged 15 to 49 are:

  • 417 million people with HSV-2 genital herpes infections
  • 140 million people with HSV-1 (causing genital herpes infections)

Estimates deduce that over half a billion people worldwide have genital herpes from either HSV-1 or HSV-2 infections. This is approximately 8% of the global population, although prevalence varies across different regions.

Who Is at Risk for Genital Herpes?

Any sexually active person is at risk for genital herpes; however, women are infected with genital herpes more often than men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that in the United States, 15.9% of women are infected with HSV-2 compared to 8.2% of men.

This could be because the virus is more easily transmitted from the penis to the vagina during intercourse than vice versa. Men are also more often asymptomatic (showing no symptoms), so estimates are likely low.

HSV-2 also disproportionately affects non-Hispanic Black people, particularly Black women. The disparity is not due to biological factors but rather a long history of structural medical racism and lack of equitable access to health care.

How Is Genital Herpes Spread?

Genital herpes is caused by both the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses when they come into contact with:

  • Broken skin in the genital area
  • Vagina
  • Penis
  • Anus

However, the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses tend to spread differently.

The HSV-1 virus causes oral herpes. When a person with oral herpes has unprotected (also referred to as condomless) oral sex with another person, they can spread the HSV-1 virus from their mouth to their partner's genitals, causing genital herpes.

The HSV-2 virus spreads through sexual contact. If one person is infected with the HSV-2 virus, they can transmit it to their sexual partner, even if they have no symptoms.

It is much less common, but both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can pass from an infected parent to a baby during vaginal delivery.

Genital Herpes Transmission Rates

There is no single clear-cut genital herpes transmission rate because transmission is affected by many factors. These factors include:

  • Form of sex (oral, vaginal, anal)
  • How symptomatic the infected partner is
  • Method of contraception
  • Number of times sex is engaged in
  • How long the infected person has had the virus

Virus Shedding and Transmission

Transmission is generally more likely when the infected partner is symptomatic because viral shedding is greater. Research shows that for HSV-2, shedding occurs:

  • 10.2% of days when asymptomatic
  • 20.1% of days when symptomatic

However, transmission can still commonly occur when the infected partner has no symptoms.

Among heterosexual couples with one infected partner, research has found that transmission was 10% over one year. The transmission occurred when the infected partner was asymptomatic 70% of those times.

This indicates that while viral shedding is higher when a person is symptomatic, prevention methods, even when they are asymptomatic, are equally important.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, although they can still spread the virus.

Symptomatic genital herpes typically looks like small blisters or vesicles on the genitals or rectum. These may appear in clusters and can burst open to form weeping (leaking fluid), scabby, and painful ulcers.

Genital herpes is a lifelong condition with periods of remission (no symptoms) between outbreaks. The first outbreak is usually the worst, with other symptoms, like fever and body aches. After that, further outbreaks tend to have less extreme symptoms and last a shorter time.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you notice any skin changes in your genital or anal region, talk to a trusted healthcare provider. Additionally, if you are beginning a sexual relationship with a partner who is diagnosed with genital herpes, talk to your healthcare provider about the best prevention methods to reduce your chance of infection.

Reducing Your Risk

The only way to eliminate your risk of getting genital herpes is to abstain from oral, vaginal, or anal sex.

You can, however, lower your risk of getting genital herpes through a few methods:

  • Only have sex with a single, long-term partner who does not have genital herpes
  • Always use barrier methods of contraception, including condoms (external and internal) or dental dams, during oral sex
  • Ask new sexual partners when and if they've been tested for HSV
  • Be sure your partner is taking daily anti-herpes medication if they have genital herpes
  • Abstain from sex during an outbreak if your partner has genital herpes

Do External and Internal Condoms Prevent Genital Herpes?

While external and internal condoms can lower your chance of contracting genital herpes, they cannot offer 100% protection from infection. This is because herpes sores can frequently occur outside the area that condoms cover and sore-free skin can also shed the virus.


Genital herpes is a common, infectious STI that disproportionately affects women. It is caused by the HSV-2 (genital herpes) and HSV-1 (oral herpes) viruses. The number of people with genital herpes has been on the decline, but there are still an estimated half million new infections in the United States each year.

While HSV is not curable, you can prevent infection by limiting your sexual partners, using contraception, abstaining from sex entirely or if your partner has an outbreak, and speaking to potential partners about whether they've been tested for HSV.

A Word From Verywell

While there is a taboo surrounding genital herpes, it's a very common STI. If you or your partner suspects you may have genital herpes, talk to your healthcare provider about protection methods and antivirals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the chance of herpes transmission from an infected male to an uninfected female?

    The chance of herpes transmission from an infected male to an uninfected female is higher than from an infected female to an uninfected male. The virus is more easily transmitted from the penis to the vagina than vice versa. The exact transmission rate depends on other factors, such as the degree of your symptoms, contraception method, how long a partner has been infected, and more.

  • What is the chance of herpes transmission from an infected female to an uninfected male?

    The chance of herpes transmission from an infected female to an uninfected male is lower than from an infected male to an uninfected female.

  • What percentage of American adults have herpes?

    According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 11.9% of American adults have genital herpes (HSV-2), and 47.8% have oral herpes (HSV-1).

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Spicknall IH, Flagg EW, Torrone EA. Estimates of the prevalence and incidence of genital herpes, united states, 2018. Sex Transm Dis. 2021;48(4):260-265. doi:10.1097/OLQ.0000000000001375

  2. World Health Organization. Globally, an estimated two-thirds of the population under 50 are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - cdc detailed fact sheet.

  4. Cazeau-Bandoo SIV, Ho IK. The role of structural gendered racism in effective healthcare utilization among black american women with herpes simplex virusJournal of Prevention and Health Promotion. 2022;3(1):3-29. doi:10.1177/26320770211049257

  5. American Academy of Dermatology. Herpes simplex.

  6. World Health Organization. Herpes simplex virus.

  7. UpToDate. Patient education: genital herpes (beyond the basics).

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - cdc basic fact sheet.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2 in persons aged 14-49: united states 2015-2016.

By Sarah Bence
Sarah Bence, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and freelance writer. She specializes in a variety of health topics including mental health, dementia, celiac disease, and endometriosis.