No one knows for sure how many people have herpes. This is because it is common to experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
There are two types of herpes virus: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
Experts estimate that a large portion of the world’s population has oral herpes, or HSV-1, while a smaller portion has genital herpes, or HSV-2.
Herpes is a skin condition that comes from the HSV. It may cause skin blisters, sores, fever, and body aches. Often, however, it causes no symptoms.
Both types of virus are contagious, and there is currently no cure. Keep reading to learn more about how many people have herpes. We also discuss the common myths surrounding this infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 6 people in the United States between the ages of 14 and 49 years have genital herpes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) say that globally, about 67% of people below the age of 50 years (which equates to 3.7 billion people) have HSV-1. This is the virus that most often causes oral herpes.
They also note that about 417 million people aged 15–49 years (11% of the population) have HSV-2, which usually causes genital herpes.
According to the WHO, HSV-2 is more common in women; it affected 267 million women and 150 million men in 2012. This difference is due to the fact that women tend to contract HSV-2 more easily from sexual contact.
Although herpes is common, many myths and misunderstandings surround it. Here are some of the most common ones:
Myth #1: People with herpes know that they have it
Fact: Most people who have oral or genital herpes do not have any symptoms, according to the WHO.
Therefore, a person may not know that they have herpes, which means that they could unintentionally spread it to others.
The WHO state that only 10–20% of people who have HSV-2 report receiving a diagnosis of genital herpes.
Myth #2: Herpes is only a sexually transmitted infection
Fact: Not all cases of herpes spread through sex. HSV-1 often spreads through contact with the skin or saliva of a person who has the infection.
For instance, people can spread it by kissing, sharing utensils, touching an infected surface, or having skin-to-skin contact.
According to the CDC, most people who have HSV-1, which can cause cold sores, got it during childhood from nonsexual contact, such as receiving a kiss from a family member.
According to the WHO, however, HSV-2 is “almost exclusively sexually transmitted.”
Myth #3: People cannot spread herpes to others unless they have sores or blisters
Fact: People can spread herpes to others at any time, including when they do not have any symptoms.
People with herpes may experience outbreaks and remissions. During an outbreak, a person has active sores or blisters, but in remission, they may have no symptoms at all.
The virus is usually more contagious when a person has an outbreak, but it can also spread when it is in remission.
Myth #4: Herpes will go away on its own
Fact: There is currently no cure for HSV-1 or HSV-2. Once a person has it, the infection is lifelong. The symptoms may come and go, but the virus will stay in the body.
That said, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medications that can help control the severity and frequency of outbreaks.
Myth #5: Herpes is not harmful
Fact: Most of the time, herpes is mild. However, it can cause serious complications in some cases.
Also, if an infant has exposure to herpes during delivery, they are at risk of neonatal herpes. This can cause brain damage or death. Research suggests that neonatal herpes affects 1 in 1,700 to 1 in 8,200 births.
Both types of herpes are most contagious when a person has symptoms. However, herpes can still spread when no symptoms are present.
Genital herpes spreads through sexual contact. The likelihood of a person spreading it will depend on:
- how often they have sex with another person
- if and how often they use barrier method contraception
- how long they have had herpes
Using barrier method contraception reduces the risk of spreading herpes to a sexual partner, but it cannot prevent it completely. Dental dams can reduce the risk of spread during oral sex, as herpes can pass between a person’s mouth and their partner’s genitals.
Research shows that older herpes infections are less contagious than newer ones. In other words, if a person has had the virus for many years, they may be less likely to spread it than someone who has recently contracted it.
People can also get oral herpes through nonsexual contact with a person who has the virus. This contact may include kissing or sharing utensils or drinks.
Although herpes is contagious, there are ways to lower the chance of spreading it. The points below will provide some prevention tips:
- People who have an active cold sore should avoid oral contact with other people. Oral contact includes kissing, sharing objects such as cups or utensils, and oral sex.
- If a person touches a cold sore, they should wash their hands immediately afterward.
- People with genital herpes should avoid sexual contact during an outbreak (when there are visible sores or other symptoms).
- People who have genital herpes but do not have symptoms should use barrier protection during sexual contact. This reduces the chance of spreading the infection. However, it does not eliminate the risk completely.
- Antiviral medications can reduce the risk of spreading herpes and lower the frequency of outbreaks. Research indicates that they can reduce the risk by about half. People who have HSV-1 or HSV-2 may wish to speak with a doctor about antiviral medications.
- Pregnant women should speak with a healthcare professional about preventing genital herpes. Getting genital herpes in late pregnancy may increase the risk of passing it to the baby.
Herpes is a common viral infection that usually causes mild symptoms. People can spread both types of the virus through oral or sexual contact.
According to some estimates, more than half of the global population has herpes.
People who have herpes can still have sexual relationships and continue to kiss and hug family members, but it is advisable to take precautions during an active outbreak.