Is Herpes Contagious?

Herpes is a contagious disease and can be transmitted between individuals, but there are many misconceptions about how the virus can be passed to others.

Understanding the facts about herpes and its transmission can reduce individuals’ risk of catching the virus and developing one of the conditions caused by these viruses, including genital herpes, cold sores, chickenpox, and shingles.

Direct Contact Transmission

The herpes virus is passed between people through direct contact. That means the infected person’s skin must touch the skin of the other person for the virus to be transmitted.

For example, an individual who already has cold sores and kissed another person can pass the virus onto them. Likewise, genital herpes can be passed between individuals through genital contact and through oral to genital contact. Herpes zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles, can also be spread through direct contact with blistered skin.

Because direct contact with the infected skin is required for transmission to occur, that means many of the myths about how herpes is contacted can be disproven. For example, no case of genital herpes being contracted from a toilet seat has ever been documented and is highly unlikely because the virus cannot survive long when exposed to air.

However, oral herpes can be passed through inanimate objects that come in contact with cold sores on the lips. For example, sharing glasses or lipstick with someone who has cold sores can greatly increase the risk of passing on the virus to someone else.

Are Symptoms Necessary for Transmission?

Another common misconception about the spread of herpes is that someone needs to in the middle of an outbreak or at least displaying symptoms of the infection in order to transmit the virus.

Individuals who have been infected but are not yet showing symptoms can transmit the virus to other people through direct contact. An outbreak can increase the risk of passing on the virus to another person but is not necessary for contracting the virus through oral or genital contact.

Pregnancy & Herpes

A particular concern for women is that they may be able to pass on the virus to a baby. If an outbreak is present at the time of the vaginal delivery, the baby could contract the virus from exposure.

Because the immune system of an infant is not as strong as in an adult, the virus can cause serious complications if this transmission occurs. Pregnant women and women attempting to become pregnant who have been diagnosed with herpes should consult their doctor.