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Ask us: What is herpes?


What is herpes simplex?

Herpes simplex is a common virus. It infects many people in and around the mouth (oral herpes), causing lesions known as cold sores or fever blisters. It also infects some people in the genital area, where it is known as genital herpes. The virus can infect other areas of the body, but such infections are relatively uncommon. Estimates are that in the United States, about 50 million people have oral herpes, and 26 to 31 million have genital herpes. Many of these people do not experience the classic symptoms, and are not aware that they have herpes.
There are two types of Herpes Simplex virus, called Type 1 and Type 2. While there are differences in their molecular structure, they behave in the same way, and either type can cause infection at either site- oral or genital. Type 1 is more commonly found above the waist, and Type 2 below the waist.
Herpes is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact involving the site of infection.
  • A person with a cold sore can spread the virus
    • to another person's mouth by kissing
    • to another person's genital area through oral sex (where the cold sore touches the partner's genital area)

  • A person with active genital herpes can spread the virus
    • to another person's genital area through sexual intercourse or other genital-to-genital contact
    • to another person's mouth through oral sex (where the site of infection touches the partner's mouth or lips)
The facts on this page are courtesy of the Herpes Resource Center of the American Social Health Association (ASHA) (brochure Herpes: Questions and Answers).