The herpes simplex virus (HSV) comes in two different strains: HSV-1, which mainly infects the mouth area as cold sores or "fever blisters," and HSV-2, or genital herpes, which infects the anogenital area (anus and genitals). However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can infect either the genitals or mouth, or anywhere along the skin. When type 1 spreads to the genitals it is then also termed "genital herpes."
Both types of herpes act similarly, forming fluid-filled blisters that eventually break into tender sores or lesions.
Once infected with genital herpes, the virus begins parasitizing host cells, using them to reproduce. If it ever manifests into blisters and sores (most carriers never experience symptoms), it usually does so within the first two weeks of contraction; this is called an "outbreak." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), initial outbreaks "typically heal within two to four weeks." During an outbreak, the virus is said to be "active." It is during this active stage that herpes is most contagious. The sores are filled with viral DNA that can transfer upon contact; and herpes can infect any part of the epidermis with which it comes into contact.
However, once the sores have healed, genital herpes generally goes into a dormant stage. During this stage it ceases reproduction within the host. The virus is much less contagious while it is dormant. However, it can still be released from the skin and transmit infection. This means that herpes is always contagious, as there are only two stages: active and dormant. It is merely less contagious during the dormant stage.
According to the CDC, if a carrier of HSV-2 does have an initial outbreak, he should expect about "four to five" additional outbreaks over the next year, with occurrences generally decreasing in frequency over time.
Type 1 herpes behaves similarly to type 2 and is just as contagious. However, a person with HSV-1 will have less frequent and much less pronounced outbreaks than a person with HSV-2.
What You Should Know
The severity of HSV varies from person to person, especially HSV-2. While many never experiences symptoms, some may have frequently recurring, painful sores.
According to the CDC, a "herpes infection can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems." The CDC also states that genital herpes in pregnant women "can lead to potentially fatal infections in babies."
"Nationwide, at least 45 million people ages 12 and older, or one out of five adolescents and adults, have had genital HSV infection," the CDC reports.
According to the CDC, "the surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including genital herpes, is to abstain from sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected." Proper condom use reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of HSV-2 transmission.