How Is Genital Herpes Spread?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is most often caused by HSV-2 but may also be caused by HSV-1. It is contagious and can be transmitted through anal, oral, and vaginal sex.

Learn more about genital herpes, how it spreads, who is most at risk, when to get tested and how to prevent spread.

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Where Do You Get Genital Herpes From?

A person can acquire genital herpes through intimate sexual contact with someone with the herpes virus.

This includes transmission through:

  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • Vaginal sex

The virus can be transmitted by having contact with bodily fluids and skin. This includes:

  • The skin around the genital area of a person with genital herpes or the mouth of a person with oral herpes
  • A herpes sore
  • The genital fluid from a person with genital herpes
  • Saliva from a person with oral herpes
  • Sharing sex toys with a person living with the virus

It is possible to acquire genital herpes if you receive oral sex from someone with oral herpes. Genital herpes can be transmitted from someone who doesn't know they have the virus or has no visible herpes sores.

It is not possible to get genital herpes through casual contact. This includes:

  • Swimming pools
  • Sheets and bedding
  • Toilet seats
  • Cutlery
  • Towels
  • Soaps

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone who has sex is at risk of genital herpes. However, the infection is more commonly diagnosed in certain groups. For example, genital herpes is more common in people with a vagina than in people with a penis.

A study of the prevalence of having acquired HSV-2, the virus that most often causes genital herpes, shows that 1 in 6 females aged 14 to 49 has the HSV-2 virus, while 1 in 13 males of the same age group has the HSV-2 virus. (These numbers do not account for genital herpes due to HSV-1.)

The vagina can create a riskier environment for acquiring genital herpes when compared with the penis. Tears in vaginal tissue can make acquiring a genital herpes infection easier. It is also possible the virus is more easily transmitted from penis to vagina rather than vagina to penis during penile-vaginal sex.

Infection with HSV-2 is more common in some groups. This rate was determined by testing blood for antibodies to the virus. Non-Hispanic Black people are more likely to have acquired HSV-2 than non-Hispanic White people.

Genital herpes is also common in Black women. One in two Black women has acquired HSV-2.

When Should You Get Tested?

If you have symptoms of herpes (such as sores), it is a good idea to make an appointment with a healthcare provider. Professional diagnosis is the only way to determine whether you have genital herpes.

Some other STIs, like syphilis, can have a similar appearance to genital herpes, so it is important to see a healthcare provider who can conduct an examination and tests to determine what infection, if any, is present.

A healthcare provider may:

  • Examine the skin and genital area for sores or blisters that may indicate a genital herpes infection
  • Use a swab to collect a sample of fluid from any sores present and send it for testing
  • Collect a sample of blood to test (this isn't recommended if no symptoms are present)

How Common Is Genital Herpes?

In the United States, genital herpes is a common STI. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every year, there are 527,000 new genital herpes infections. Of people aged 14 to 49 in the United States, 11.9% have acquired HSV-2, which most often causes genital herpes.

The actual prevalence of genital herpes is likely higher than that because many people with genital herpes acquire it from HSV-1, which commonly causes oral herpes (cold sores). Oral HSV-1 is typically acquired in childhood through non-sexual contact with saliva.

Risk Factors for Genital Herpes

Anyone who has sex can contract genital herpes. But some people are more at risk of acquiring the virus. These include:

  • Teenagers and young adults, who are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior
  • Those who have sex at a young age
  • Those who have sex with someone who has the virus
  • Those who frequently change their sexual partners
  • Those who don't use condoms (external and internal)
  • Those who don't use condoms correctly
  • Those with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Those who have previously had an STI

Can You Get Genital Herpes From Someone With Cold Sores?

It is possible to acquire genital herpes by receiving oral sex from someone with a cold sore. Cold sores, also known as oral herpes, are caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two forms of this virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Oral herpes is most often caused by HSV-1, and HSV-2 most often causes genital herpes.

It is possible for a person who has oral HSV-1 to transmit the virus through oral sex, even if they don't have cold sores at that time. You can acquire genital herpes from someone with oral herpes if they give you oral sex. Therefore, it is best to avoid sex of any kind if someone has a sore.

Can You Get Herpes If Your Partner Doesn’t Have It?

It is possible to acquire herpes from someone who doesn't realize they have the virus. You can acquire herpes by having sex with someone who doesn't have any symptoms but still has the virus.

Not everyone with herpes knows they have herpes. They may never have symptoms, or the symptoms were so mild they thought they had a different problem, like an ingrown hair. One study found that 87.4% of people with HSV-2 had never been diagnosed with herpes.

If you have been diagnosed with herpes and your partner hasn't, this doesn't necessarily mean someone has been cheating. It can take weeks to years for a herpes outbreak to occur in some people. This can sometimes make it difficult to determine where and when the herpes virus was acquired.

How to Prevent the Spread of Genital Herpes

The only way to completely prevent genital herpes from being transmitted is not to have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. The virus can be transmitted when a person has no symptoms.

Using a condom correctly during sex can help prevent transmitting herpes. However, the virus can still be transmitted from areas of skin not covered by a condom.

If you or your partner has been diagnosed with genital herpes, the risk of transmission can be lowered if the person with genital herpes takes an anti-herpes medication daily. You should avoid sex when one of you is having an outbreak.


Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Anyone who has sex is at risk of the condition. It can be transmitted by someone who has no symptoms and is unaware that they have ever acquired the virus. It is highly prevalent among people aged 14 to 49 in the United States.

Seeing a healthcare provider is the only way to get a definitive diagnosis of genital herpes. If you have acquired the virus, the risk of transmission can be reduced through daily medication and refraining from having sex of any kind during an outbreak.

A Word From Verywell

It can be distressing dealing with genital herpes. But remember, herpes is a common STI and is nothing to be ashamed of. If you have symptoms that could be genital herpes, don't hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider for help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How easily is genital herpes transmitted?

    Genital herpes can easily be transmitted via close skin-to-skin contact, contact with herpes sores, or contact with genital fluids or saliva. It can be transmitted during anal, oral, or vaginal sex.

  • How long is genital herpes contagious?

    Once you have acquired the herpes virus, there is always the possibility you are shedding the virus and can transmit it, even if you have no symptoms. In addition, it is possible to transmit genital herpes even without knowing you have the infection.

  • How do I make sure I don't transmit genital herpes?

    If you have genital herpes, you should follow your healthcare provider's directions regarding any anti-herpes medication you should take. It is also important to refrain from having sex of any kind while symptoms of genital herpes are present.

10 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.
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  6. Planned Parenthood. Should I get tested for herpes?
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