Herpes is generally spread from person to person through skin to skin contact. The herpes virus needs a few factors for successful transmission including friction, heat and moisture.
Here we talk about how likely it is to spread, the factor of Asymptomatic Herpes Viral Shedding and when this is most likely to happen.
There are two ways Herpes can be transmitted:
When noticeable symptoms are present (including warning signs such as itching and tingling, as well as when the outbreak is healing and crusted or closed over).
When no symptoms are visible but shedding may be occurring at the skin’s surface. This is estimated to occur between 1% to 30 % of days depending on the type of Herpes simplex infection and where it occurs.
Here is an estimate of how often viral shedding happens (Terri Warren, RN, NP – Westover Heights Clinic Herpes Handbook, 2010):
- HSV 2 genital: 15-30% of days evaluated
- HSV 1 genital: 3-5% of days evaluated
- HSV 1 oral: 9-18% of days evaluated
- HSV 2 oral:1% of days evaluated
Asymptomatic Herpes Viral Shedding
The period of time just before and just after an outbreak is considered a “high risk” time and is when Asymptomatic Herpes Viral Shedding is most likely to occur. Avoiding sex at the first sign of any symptom and for a few days after the outbreak has healed will help reduce the chance of Herpes spreading.
Is safe sex with Herpes possible?
Many couples have had long term relationships with active sex lives without the spread of Herpes simplex virus. If the partner with HSV is conscious and aware of when an outbreak is beginning (itching, burning, tingling) and refrains from sex until the outbreak is fully healed then transmission is very unlikely.
To give you a realistic idea that demonstrates exactly how safe sex with an HSV+ partner can be, take a look at the numbers provided by scientific studies.
By avoiding sex during an active outbreak chances of virus transmission are 4% a year (Terri Warren, RN, NP – WebMD, 2005). Yes. Per year, not sexual session. Dividing this figure by 365 days (or nights), this makes the possibility of spreading the virus on any given day/night 1%, (0.04 x 1/ 365 = 1.09589041%) or almost 98.91% likelihood that you won’t pass it on.
If also using condoms or anti-viral drugs, it cuts those already-staggering odds in half, to 2% a year. The possibility of spreading HSV on any given night would then become a 0.5% or 99.5% chance that you won’t.
Simply put, 99% odds are excellent. If you had a 99% chance of winning the lottery, would you buy a ticket? You’d be crazy not to. There’s no arguing with that.
Therefore, considering that the only (truly) guaranteed thing in life is death, 99% odds are as solid as it gets. 96% is pretty reassuring as well. Plus, people that are aware of their HSV+ status generally tend to notice even the mildest of symptoms, including prodrome symptoms. Because of this, they are much more likely to recognize when an outbreak is about to occur, and can then inform their partner in time to knock transmission rates down to 1-4% per year by abstaining from sex temporarily.
For females, the chances of contracting Herpes are slightly higher, but not by much. Ideally, we’re looking at about 98% prevention instead of 99% (“risk” is doubled because of increased point of contact). Hardly a significant difference overall, though.
On the contrary, “strangers” or people unaware of their status, can have the lightest outbreak the world has ever seen yet end up spreading the virus because they have no idea what’s going on, or that they’re even positive in the first place. This, along with asymptomatic shedding (generally from those not taking precautions to reduce shedding), is how most people actually get HSV to begin with.
If you get anything out of this information, let it be:
Most people contract the Herpes simplex virus from people who do not know they are infected, rather than from people who are aware of their status and hence bring it up for discussion.
With this in mind, do not be scared off by “the talk” (whether you are giving it or listening).
The information is clear: the former person is risky, and the latter person is safe as long as the proper precautions are taken. The numbers speak for themselves.
Finally, one last friendly reminder: Just because you do not discuss each other’s sexual health prior to engaging in sexual activity does not make you okay. And, it certainly doesn’t mean that you and your partner are clear of Herpes … or anything else for that matter.
Always be smart, responsible, and respectful of your partner (HSV+ or HSV-) — and your love life will be amazing. Awareness and education in addition to honest and consistent communication make HSV a virtual non-issue in a relationship.