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HSV1 vs HSV2: What’s the Difference?


If you’ve recently been diagnosed with herpes, you may have a ton of questions and concerns. The first step in understanding your diagnosis  is knowing the definitions of, and differences between, the two most common types of Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV): HSV-1 and HSV-2. You may have one or both, but the two types of viruses are pretty distinct. Getting to know more about their specific features and the ways they can be transmitted may help you get a better grasp on your situation and empower you to make the best choices for you. 

Getting to Know HSV-1

HSV-1 is the type of herpes that’s usually transmitted orally and results in herpes in or around the mouth. In some cases, HSV-1 can also be sexually transmitted and result in genital herpes. In general, this is the strain of herpes that causes cold sores. Usually, these fluid-filled blisters (also called fever blisters) show up on the lips and mouth, but it’s not unheard of for them to pop up in other places like fingers or even the eyes. The thing is, not everyone with HSV-1 gets cold sores — in fact, the majority of people with the virus never have outbreaks, and if they do, they’re rare. That may sound like a relief, but it also means a lot of people are walking around with HSV-1 and have no idea because they’ve never had the symptoms to tip them off.  

This type of herpes is super common — no surprise considering how easy it is to pass it around in so many different ways and the fact that it can be transmitted even in the absence of symptoms. Around the world, 67% of people under age 50 have HSV-1, and in America, 47.8% of people between the ages of 14-49 have it. 

The Facts About HSV-2

HSV-2 is the type of herpes that’s usually spread through sexual contact and results in genital infection. This type of infection usually means outbreaks of ulcers or sores somewhere around the genitals — the penis or vagina could be affected, but so could the groin area, the buttocks, or the anus. The same rule of outbreaks applies to HSV-2 as HSV-1, though: not everyone experiences symptoms. In fact, almost 90% of people could have HSV-2 and have no idea, and while transmission is more likely to happen if and when sores are present, the virus can be spread even when there are no symptoms. This type of herpes is a lot less common than HSV-1, but it still affects quite a few people: 11.9% of Americans between the ages of 14 and 49, to be exact. 

How Do I Know If I Have HSV-1 or HSV-2?

Not everyone has symptoms, but if you suddenly find yourself with cold sores around your mouth, sores on your genitals, or, well, anywhere on your body, it’s time to see a doctor. The only way to get a proper herpes diagnosis is to get the right kind of tests — these might include tests of your blood or samples of any active lesions. The good news is, there are a variety of treatment options for both HSV-1 and HSV-2, so if you are diagnosed, your doctor will work with you to find the best options for you. 

How to Prevent Herpes in the First Place

Here’s the reality when it comes to oral herpes at least: prevention is tough, if not impossible. Almost half the adult population has it and can spread it any point — even when symptoms aren’t present. Doing something as simple as sharing a water bottle with someone who has the virus can put you at risk for contracting it. While there’s not a whole lot you can do to totally eliminate your chances of being exposed to oral herpes, there’s one major thing you can do to reduce your risk of genital herpes exposure: use condoms. And if you know you have genital herpes, taking antiviral medications in addition to wearing condoms can reduce the risk of transmission even more than wearing condoms alone.