When the herpes virus is not active on the surface of the skin it resides in a sleeping state inside the nerve cells and other tissues. At times (which cannot always be predicted), the virus will become active and travel the nerve pathways up to the surface of the skin.
It is at these times when the virus has ‘surfaced’ to the skin that viral shedding occurs. Viral shedding is when the herpes virus is active and “shedding” at the site of infection. The herpes virus is considered contagious during this “active” time and can therefore be spread through direct contact with the infected area.
It is possible for the virus to be actively shedding itself at the site of infection without showing any visible signs or symptoms. This is referred to as “Asymptomatic Viral Shedding”.
There is still lots of research that needs to be done on viral shedding.
The chance of spreading herpes due to viral shedding is very low if you avoid direct skin to skin contact with the area when there are signs or symptoms.
If the herpes virus is actively shedding there may not necessarily be any noticeable symptoms. Some people never show any signs or symptoms of herpes but can still transmit the virus to their partner.
The herpes virus can cause severe blistering in one partner but be totally unnoticeable in the other, even if both partners are infected with the exact same strand of the Herpes simplex virus.
HSV Type 1 is less likely to shed than HSV Type 2 and women are often prone to a higher rate of shedding.
It is possible for a person to carry the herpes virus without knowing that they have it, since up to 70% of people who are infected with HSV-2 show no signs of the infection. So it is very easy for a person to unwittingly transmit the infection to their partner.
Due to the fact that viral shedding can occur without any signs or symptoms, it is impossible to determine exactly when viral shedding is occurring. For this reason, there will always be a small risk of transmission.
You can however determine your high risk periods and completely avoid contact with the infected area during these times. For people who experience active outbreaks, shedding is most likely to occur a few days before any symptoms show and as soon as there are any sensations warning that an outbreak is starting.
Whenever there are noticeable symptoms, and a few days after the outbreak has healed, are also high risk times for shedding. Condoms can be used in between the high risk times and medications can be taken to further reduce the risk.
Viral shedding (that occurs with or without symptoms) is estimated to occur in 20 – 40% of days during the initial six month period after exposure to the herpes virus.
This statistic is almost halved after a person has had the virus for some time, with shedding estimated to occur on 5 – 20% of days after the first 6 months of infection.
In symptomatic cases, half of all herpes virus shedding is estimated to occur in the 7 days before and after the outbreak.
Shedding is estimated to occur at one time or another in all people who are infected with the virus, but the rates of shedding are likely to vary in people with and without active outbreaks.
The rate of viral shedding tends to vary greatly between the type of HSV and the location of the infection. The following is an example of estimated shedding rates based on current research:
In genital infections:
HSV Type 1 = 3 to 5% (of days evaluated)
HSV Type 2 = 15 to 20% (of days evaluated)
In oral (mouth) infections:
HSV Type 1 = 18% (of days evaluated)
HSV Type 2 = 1 % (of days evaluated)
Note that the rates of shedding tend to be higher when the Herpes simplex virus type occurs in its “typical” or preferred location of infection, such as HSV-1 cold sores or HSV-2 genital herpes.
There are things that you can do to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of herpes viral shedding.
Avoid contact with the infected area a few days before, during and after any symptoms are noticed.
Use latex condoms in between outbreaks to help protect against shedding.
Antiviral Medications and some herbs, such as Olive Leaf, have been proven to help reduce herpes viral shedding, helping to lower (but not eliminate) the risk of transmission.
It is definitely possible to have a long term relationship and not spread herpes. In fact, one study of couples who avoided sexual contact during recurrences found that, over 12 months, only 1 out of 10 passed the virus on to their partner.
In that study, condoms were not used. Using condoms may reduce the risk of infection even further.