What Is Asymptomatic Shedding?

Herpes Virus, artwork. David Mack/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

What Is Asymptomatic Shedding?

Just because you don't have symptoms of a disease doesn't mean you can't pass it on. Many individuals are infected with viral sexually transmitted diseases like herpes for years without knowing it.  However, even though they don't have any STD symptoms it doesn't mean they can't pass the virus on. That is one of the reasons why so many STDs are so contagious. People can undergo a phenomenon called asymptomatic shedding.

Asymptomatic shedding is when a person's body produces virus without them showing any signs of disease. This virus can then potentially infect a sexual partner. In other words, asymptomatic shedding is when a person is contagious even though they have no signs or symptoms of infection.

Herpes and Asymptomatic Shedding

It is thought that asymptomatic shedding is one reason why herpes is so common. Many people have no idea they are infected with a herpes virus. Others assume they're not capable of passing on herpes without a cold sore or lesion. (Even some doctors think that!) Unfortunately, people can have herpes for years without knowing it. They can also transmit the virus in the absence of symptoms. In fact, that's probably how most transmissions occur!

If more people understood that someone who doesn't have any symptoms of genital herpes is contagious, they might be more proactive about practicing safe sex.

That's particularly true for oral sex since many people don't know herpes can be transmitted from the mouth to the genitals during oral sex.

What About Bacterial STDs?

Individuals who are infected with bacterial sexual transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia can also pass those diseases on when they don't have any symptoms.

However, that phenomenon is not known as asymptomatic shedding. The phrase "asymptomatic shedding" is generally only used to refer to viral diseases such as herpes and HPV.


Patel R. Educational interventions and the prevention of herpes simplex virus transmission. Herpes. 2004 Aug;11 Suppl 3:155A-160A.

Sacks SL, Griffiths PD, Corey L, Cohen C, Cunningham A, Dusheiko GM, Self S, Spruance S, Stanberry LR, Wald A, Whitley RJ. HSV shedding. Antiviral Res. 2004 Aug;63 Suppl 1:S19-26.

Schiffer JT, Mayer BT, Fong Y, Swan DA, Wald A. Herpes simplex virus-2 transmission probability estimates based on quantity of viral shedding. J R Soc Interface. 2014 Mar 26;11(95):20140160. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0160.

Continue Reading