How Common Is Herpes?

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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.

Person answering healthcare provider's questions about herpes symptoms

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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.

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.

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:

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.  

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.

  • 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.

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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet.

  2. World Health Organization. Herpes simplex virus.

  3. McQuillan G, Kruszon-Moran D, Flagg EW, Paulose-Ram R. Prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2 in persons aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 304. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2018.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes—detailed CDC fact sheet.

  5. MedlinePlus. Genital herpes.

  6. What are the treatment options for genital herpes?

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes-sexually transmitted infection treatment guidelines, 2021.

  8. MedlinePlus. Genital herpes - self care.

  9. James C, Harfouche M, Welton NJ, et al. Herpes simplex virus: global infection prevalence and incidence estimates, 2016. Bull World Health Organ. 2020;98(5):315-329. doi:10.2471/BLT.19.237149

By Christine Zink, MD
Dr. Christine Zink, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine with expertise in the wilderness and global medicine. She completed her medical training at Weill Cornell Medical College and residency in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She utilizes 15-years of clinical experience in her medical writing.