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Is Herpes Contagious?

Herpes can be spread through many types of skin-to-skin contact, including oral sex.
Kissing someone with a cold sore can lead to a herpes simplex 1 infection.
To prevent transmission, you should wash hands immediately after touching cold sores or rashes.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2014
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Doctors consider herpes contagious in most of its forms. The types of the virus very often inquired about are oral and genital herpes, which are caused by herpes simplex I and II, or HSV I and II. Many other conditions also result from different herpes viruses, including chicken pox and shingles. Both of these are forms of herpes contagious to most people who haven’t had chicken pox.

The question that interests many is when are oral and genital herpes contagious? For a long time, it was thought that genital herpes, whether caused by HSV I or II, was only contagious during its periods of active expression. This meant when people had a rash or cold sore, they could pass the illness onto other people. At other times the virus was deemed not transmittable.

There has been some reversal on this point of view in recent years. First, a few days before a rash appears, people may have what are called prodromal symptoms. This is often felt as tingling or prickling of the skin. Doctors are certain herpes can be passed to other people during this time. Some people may be contagious when they don’t have any symptoms, making herpes potentially contagious at all times.

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There is still some debate on the theory that herpes may be contagious at all times. Many people have infected partners who they have strictly avoided skin-to-skin contact with during evidence of genital rash or cold sores. They’ve never gotten herpes, though they have had unprotected sex during other times, perhaps to conceive children. One possibility is that some people are more effective carriers of the disease than others and may spread it more easily. Still, people can’t predict the degree of contagiousness of a partner and this makes it difficult to know how to treat intimate contact with a partner who has herpes.

At certain times, it might make sense to use exceptional caution. Pregnant women, for example, have a much higher risk of transmitting herpes to babies if they contract it for the first time during pregnancy. Using condoms with an infected partner might be advised to reduce this risk. Antiviral medications also make people, who are not experiencing an active outbreak, less infectious and they could be recommended to reduce potential spread of the disease

Clearly, active infection makes herpes contagious more than at any other time. It is absolutely essential that people avoid contact with a rash or cold sores of someone else. Sex should be avoided during outbreaks or if prodromal symptoms are suspected. Kissing or touching near cold sores is ill advised, too.

It’s also important to realize that a person can cause herpes infection on another part of his or her body. Touching the genitals, then the mouth or the eyes could lead to the infection being transmitted to a new location. It’s best to touch cold sores or rash as little as possible, and wash hands immediately afterwards. Many doctors also advise people to not share towels or linens that have direct contact with the skin, as it possible to infect someone else in this manner.

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