The Herpes Viruses Are Getting Smarter

Find out what it means for prevention and treatment.

Medically Reviewed

Many people aren’t aware that there are two types of herpes viruses in humans — and that both types can lead to either genital or oral infections. And now researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have discovered that these two viruses are actually intermingling, creating new strains — yikes.

More than two-thirds of the world has at least one type, either herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Yeah, if you’re one of them you’re so not alone.) Because the virus is so common, researchers have long hoped to develop an effective vaccine — in fact, the World Health Organization is working to fast-track development. But this discovery reported in the Journal of Infectious Diseases could seriously slow down those efforts.

The reason: If a live-virus vaccine were developed for HSV-2, say, the weakened HSV-2 strain in the vaccine could "commingle" with a coexisting HSV-1 strain in the body, creating a new infectious virus, says lead study author Amanda Casto, M.D., a senior fellow in infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in a press release.

HSV-1 vs. HSV-2: What’s the Difference?

HSV-1 and HSV-2 are super similar — they’re even treated with the same drug, acyclovir. However, their genetic differences cause them to act differently in the body.

HSV-1 infections most commonly occur in the mouth, according to the CDC. Do you ever get cold sores? That’s HSV-1. HSV-2, on the other hand, typically infects in the genital area, causing genital herpes. However, there are more and more cases cropping up in which HSV-1 is infecting the genitals, per the CDC, and it’s possible (though more rare) for HSV-2 to infect the mouth.

That means that if you receive oral sex from someone with oral cold sores (HSV-1), you are at risk of getting genital herpes from HSV-1. It’s a common misconception that oral herpes doesn’t spread genitally.

Coinfection is also possible, meaning you can have one type of herpes causing outbreaks on your mouth, and the other type causing outbreaks on your genital area, at the same time.

One of the Most Stigmatized STIs

Despite the fact that herpes can’t be cured, it’s a highly manageable skin condition. In fact, many people who contract herpes have no symptoms or only mild ones, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Usually, the first herpes outbreak after infection is the worst, and they get less severe and less frequent over time as your body builds up its defenses against the virus.

"Herpes is one of the most stigmatized diseases out there, and yet it affects billions of people," said co-author Alexander Greninger, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of laboratory medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. And despite the fact that it can be well-managed with antiviral drugs, myths surrounding it persist. And in fact, some people say it’s the mental health struggles after diagnosis that are the worst part.

How to Prevent STIs Like Herpes

So what can you do? Unfortunately, the only fool-proof way to avoid the spread of STIs altogether is to not have sex. And for most people, that’s just not gonna happen. But, thankfully, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Number one piece of advice from experts? Use. Condoms. Correctly — and with every single sex act. Preferably ones made of latex (or polyurethane if you’re allergic to latex). While condom use can’t 100% guarantee you won’t get or transmit herpes (it’s a skin condition, after all), it makes it significantly less likely, according to ACOG.

Another key piece of advice? Open the lines of communication with your sex partners. It can feel awkward and even scary, but it’s important to talk about your sexual health and disclose any STIs you do have.

See more helpful articles:

10 Myths About Genital Herpes

10 Ways to Prevent Herpes Outbreaks

Why You Should Disclose Your STI Status to Your Partners