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You probably know that herpes commonly spreads through sexual contact. But can you get herpes without having sex? The answer is yes; herpes can spread through other ways, such as skin-to-skin contact, childbirth, and more. Keep reading to learn more.
How do you get herpes?
Most often, people get herpes through sexual contact. This could be from oral, vaginal, or anal sex. In fact, herpes is among one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The herpes simplex virus is spread through skin-to-skin contact (often through open sores) or by sharing bodily fluids. This means you can get the virus even through just kissing or touching another person with a herpes infection.
HSV-2, or genital herpes, can be passed through sexual activity (including oral, anal, and vaginal sex). You can also get a genital herpes infection from sharing sex toys (CDC, 2021). Oral herpes (HSV-1) is commonly spread in childhood and can pass between people through kissing or touching. HSV-1 can also lead to genital herpes through oral sex (Rathbun, 2022; CDC, 2021).
How is herpes transmitted non-sexually?
One way to contract herpes without having sex is through kissing. If you have HSV-1, there’s a risk of passing it to someone else through saliva. It’s also possible to spread the virus if you touch your mouth and then come in contact with another person’s bodily fluids.
Indirect skin contact is another way you can get herpes non-sexually––for example, by sharing a drinking glass with someone carrying the virus. That said, this form of transmission is unlikely, as the virus can only live for a few days on moist surfaces away from the body (Matthew, 2021).
Childbirth and herpes
Another way herpes spreads non-sexually is through childbirth. If a woman with genital herpes has a vaginal delivery, it’s possible to transmit the virus to the baby at the time of delivery. This is potentially dangerous for the baby and can lead to serious infections of multiple sites, including the central nervous system.
For this reason, women with an active herpes infection are usually advised to have a Cesarean section to eliminate the risk of passing it onto their infant.
Signs of genital herpes typically appear 3–7 days after exposure (Saleh, 2021). Women commonly experience the infection around their vagina or cervix, and men have it on their penis or scrotum.
The first symptom is often a tingling or warm sensation on the genitals, followed by small red bumps or white blisters. When the blisters rupture, oozing or bleeding ulcers may form. As the ulcers heal, the skin crusts over and forms a scab.
Other symptoms of genital herpes include:
- Difficulty urinating
- Pain and tenderness around the genital area
- Flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, and headache (especially during an initial outbreak)
The most common symptom of oral herpes is a cold sore or fever blister on the mouth. The sores can appear on the lips, gums, tongue, inside of the cheeks, roof of the mouth, or throat. Many people first experience a warm or tingling sensation before the sore appears. The sore will look like a red, fluid-filled blister on the mouth and will start to leak. Over a few days, the sore will form a crust and start healing. Some people with oral herpes also experience a sore throat or swollen lymph nodes (Saleh, 2021).
There is no cure for herpes, but medication can manage symptoms. For oral herpes, topical antiviral ointments are available over-the-counter.
For genital herpes, two prescription drugs that can alleviate symptoms include acyclovir (Zovirax) and valacyclovir (Valtrex; see Important Safety Information). These medications can lessen the severity of symptoms, reduce the frequency of outbreaks, heal sores sooner, and minimize the chance of spreading the infection to another person. In some cases (for example, if you’re about to give birth), your healthcare provider may prescribe the medication beforehand to prevent an active infection.
If you think you have oral or genital herpes, it’s important to contact a healthcare provider right away so they can recommend the appropriate treatment.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Genital herpes – CDC fact sheet (detailed). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm
- Cohen, J. I. (2017). Vaccination to reduce reactivation of herpes simplex virus type 2. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 215(6): 844-846. doi:10.1093/infdis/jix006. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jid/article/215/6/844/2888828
- Matthew, J. J. & Sapra, A. (2021). Herpes simplex type 2. StatPearls. Retrieved on May 23, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554427/
- Rathbun, M. M., Shipley, M. M., Bowen, C. D., et al. (2022). Comparison of herpes simplex virus 1 genomic diversity between adult sexual transmission partners with genital infection. Plos Pathogens, 18(5). doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1010437. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1010437
- Saleh, D., Yarrarapu, S. N. S., & Sharma, S. (2021). Herpes simplex type 1. StatPearls. Retrieved on May 23, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482197/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.