This article explores the latest statistics on types of herpes in the U.S. and worldwide, as well as how herpes affects health. It also covers common myths about herpes and frequently asked questions.
Learn statistics on the strains of the herpes simplex virus both in the US and worldwide along with health and social impacts, and how to prevent herpes transmission.
What is Herpes?
Herpes simplex is the most common type of the herpes virus. It affects 3.7 billion people globally. It is highly contagious and many people contract herpes simplex without knowing it.
It is spread via direct contact with herpes sores or from the saliva, semen, or vaginal secretions of someone who is infected.
Oral Herpes (HSV-1)
Oral herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus-1, or HSV-1. It can be passed to others via sexual and non-sexual contact.
HSV-1 is the most common herpes virus. Many who have it contracted it during childhood from parents or relatives.
HSV-1 may be asymptomatic for many years before causing symptoms. Some people may never show signs of infection.
Common symptoms of oral herpes are:
- Painful cold sores or blisters in or around the mouth
- Tingling, itching, or other sensations 1-3 days before sores appear
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Headaches and body aches
Genital Herpes (HSV-2)
Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus-2, or HSV-2. It is passed to others via sexual contact. It is the second most common type of herpes virus.
It is possible to have HSV-2 but never show signs or symptoms. Even people with asymptomatic infections may be able to spread the virus to others.If someone is newly exposed to genital herpes, it may take 2-12 days before first symptoms appear. Around 11% of Americans under age 50 have HSV-2.
Common symptoms of genital herpes include:
- Sores, blisters, or lesions in or around the genitals, anus, or inner thighs
- Tingling, itching, or sensations 1-3 days before sores appear
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Body aches and headaches
Sometimes HSV-2 can cause sores around the mouth, though this is less common.
How Many People Have Herpes Worldwide?
HSV-1 is most commonly passed non-sexually during childhood. People who are born female are more likely to be affected by HSV-2, since sexual transmission is more likely during vaginal sexual intercourse. The highest number of new herpes simplex infections occurs during adolescence.
How Many People Have Herpes in the US?
It is possible that many more people have HSV-1 than this, since asymptomatic infections are common and many people get the virus in childhood and never know they have it. Herpes simplex viruses are not routinely tested for unless a person has complications.
Doctors do not necessarily test for the viruses even during outbreaks if the symptoms are clear. HSV-1 and HSV-2 do not always require medical care or treatment, although you should tell your doctor if you experience an outbreak or have other health concerns.
Health and Social Impacts
Most people with either type of herpes simplex virus are not aware that they have it. However, when outbreaks do occur, they can impact a person negatively.
There is a stigma about herpes simplex being a sexually transmitted infection, even though cold sores are often caused by a virus that is contracted from non-sexual contact.
Recurring episodes of herpes simplex either from HSV-1 or HSV-2 can cause distress and may have a negative effect on a person’s quality of life, sexual relationships, and overall health.The potential health impact for neonatal herpes is also a concern.
Although less common, herpes simplex can be passed to an infant in the genital tract during birth. Neonatal herpes occurs in approximately 10 out of every 100,000 births worldwide. When it does happen, the infant can experience permanent neurological disability or death.
Herpes and HIV
While genital herpes is not a direct cause of HIV, an association between HSV-2 and the risk of HIV infection has been found.
A study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that nearly 30% of new HIV infections from sexual contact could be associated with HSV-2. People who have HSV-2 may be three times more likely to get HIV if exposed.
This is because herpes simplex creates inflammation and breaks in the skin that can allow HIV to enter and cause infection.Additionally, people who are born female have a higher biological susceptibility to both genital herpes and HIV from sexual transmission.
Common Myths About Herpes
There are many myths about herpes: what it is, how it is spread, and what it means for those who have it.Understanding the facts about herpes can reduce stigma.
Giving Birth Always Transmits the Virus to Babies
Transmission via birth is highly unlikely for HSV-1. For genital herpes, it is still unlikely to transmit during birth, but may be more likely if a pregnant person acquires HSV-2 for the first time during pregnancy.
People Cannot Spread Herpes Unless They Have Sores or Blisters
Many people have asymptomatic herpes simplex infections. Even without active cold sores or blisters, it is still possible to transmit HSV-1 or HSV-2 via saliva, semen, or vaginal secretions.
This can happen from platonic kissing, such as from a parent to a child, or even from kissing between partners that is not open-mouth and does not involve any tongue. It is likely that most herpes infections are transmitted without signs of active infection, especially with HSV-1.
Herpes Can be Transmitted Through Blood
Herpes is not a blood-borne infection. It is transmitted via the fluids from cold sores or herpes blisters, from the saliva of an infected person, or from body fluids that are shared during sexual contact.
There’s a Cure and Vaccination for Herpes
There is no cure for herpes simplex virus and there is not yet a vaccine to prevent these viral infections.
How to Prevent Herpes Transmission
It is not always possible to prevent herpes simplex transmission. Many people who are contagious do not have signs or symptoms of infection. HSV-1 is more transmissible than HSV-2, since it can be passed via everyday, non-sexual contact.
Many people who get HSV-1 (oral herpes) contract it during childhood and may never know they have it.You can reduce the chances of getting oral herpes by avoiding contact with a person who has cold sores and by not kissing or sharing contact with any item that may touch their saliva.
However, direct contact is the most common way HSV-1 is spread. A person is contagious for a few days before herpes blister outbreaks occur and until sores are fully crusted over and healing.
This typically lasts for 1-2 weeks for oral herpes and 10-20 days for genital herpes.
You cannot get oral or genital herpes from:
Herpes simplex may be spread by kissing, oral sex, or shared objects that touch the sores or saliva of someone with an active outbreak, including:
- Cosmetic products
- Lip balm or lipstick
Herpes simplex is common.
While you cannot remove all risk of potentially contracting it, you can practice safe sex to avoid getting genital herpes.
- Do not have sexual contact with someone who has a known oral or genital herpes outbreak.
- Use condoms or dental dams when engaging in any type of sexual contact, even with no signs of genital herpes.
- Do not kiss or share utensils with someone during an active herpes outbreak.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Herpes simplex virus. (2022).
Cold sores. (2016).
Persistence in the population: epidemiology, transmission. (2007).
Genital herpes: CDC Fact Sheet. (2021).
Prevalence of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 in Persons Aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016. (2018).
Massive proportion of world’s population are living with herpes infection. (2020).
Global and regional estimates of the contribution of herpes simplex virus type 2 infection to HIV incidence: a population attributable fraction analysis using published epidemiological data. (2019).