Myth: Symptom-Free Genital Herpes Won't Transmit

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A lot of people believe that they can't give someone genital herpes when they don't have herpes symptoms. However, this isn't true. Many herpes infections are transmitted by people who have asymptomatic infections. Still more cases of herpes are transmitted by people who have herpes symptoms but don't recognize them as an STD.

How can that happen? Sometimes people they don't think their symptoms are caused by an STD.

(For example, they notice discomfort  during sex but assume they were too rough.) Other times, people may notice symptoms but not know they caused by herpes. (For example, they don't realize that cold sores are caused by a herpes virus. These sores can then be transmitted during oral sex) Both of these are real, and common, problems. 

How Can People Transmit Herpes With No Symptoms?

The herpes virus needs to be active to be transmitted. However, it's not only active at times when people have symptoms. Yes, genital herpes levels are highest in the genital track during and immediately before an outbreak. However, asymptomatic shedding can take place even when someone has no herpes symptoms. A large study published in JAMA in April 2011 found that individuals who had genital herpes but no herpes symptoms had detectable levels of virus in their systems approximately 10 percent of the time. People who had herpes symptoms shed the virus about twice as often.

In other words, if you don't have symptoms, you may still have active virus in your system one day out of 10. If you do, you're likely to have virus in your system one day out of five. That means, there's virus active even on days when you have no symptoms.

It is important to spread the word about asymptomatic transmission.

The myth that people can not transmit genital herpes when they don't have herpes symptoms is one that has caused a lot of heartache and pain. Fortunately, there are several things a person with genital herpes can do to reduce the chance of infecting their partner. These things can be useful whether or not someone has symptoms. 

Tips for reducing the risk of herpes transmission if  you have genital herpes and your partner does not:

  1. DO avoid having sex during an outbreak. If you can't, at least restrict your sexual activities to ones that won't bring your partner in contact with your sores.
  2. DON'T pop or otherwise disturb sores to try and make them go away faster.
  3. DO consider suppressive therapy. It can be used to reduce both the frequency of outbreaks and the likelihood of transmission.
  4. DO consistently practice safe sex. That's true even though it isn't perfect at preventing transmission.
  5. DON'T neglect to disclose your infection to a new partner just because you don't often have outbreaks.

Living with herpes isn't always easy, but it helps to get all the information that you can. Understanding how infections work and how they are transmitted can make it easier to cope with your own illness.

It can also make it easier to honestly communicate the risks to your partners.

Myth: You can't transmit herpes when you don't have symptoms

Fact: Herpes can be transmitted without an outbreak.


Koutsky LA, Ashley RL, Holmes KK, Stevens CE, Critchlow CW, Kiviat N, Lipinski CM, Wølner-Hanssen P, Corey L. The frequency of unrecognized type 2 herpes simplex virus infection among women. Implications for the control of genital herpes. Sex Transm Dis. 1990 Apr-Jun;17(2):90-4. 

Tronstein E, Johnston C, Huang ML, Selke S, Magaret A, Warren T, Corey L, Wald A. Genital shedding of herpes simplex virus among symptomatic and asymptomatic persons with HSV-2 infection. JAMA. 2011 Apr 13;305(14):1441-9.