Virologic characteristics of subclinical and symptomatic genital herpes infections

N Engl J Med. 1995 Sep 21;333(12):770-5. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199509213331205.


Background: The frequency, pattern, and anatomical sites of subclinical shedding of herpes simplex virus (HSV) in the genital tract, along with factors that predict such shedding, have not been well characterized.

Methods: We studied prospectively the clinical and virologic course of genital herpes in 110 women. The women kept symptom diaries and provided daily samples from the vulva, cervix, and rectum for viral culture.

Results: During a median follow-up of 105 days, subclinical shedding of virus was identified in 36 of 65 women (55 percent) with HSV type 2 (HSV-2), in 16 of 31 women (52 percent) with HSV type 1 (HSV-1) and HSV-2, and in 4 of 14 women (29 percent) with only HSV-1. Among women with genital HSV-2 infection, subclinical shedding occurred on a mean of 2 percent of the days. The mean duration of viral shedding during subclinical episodes was 1.5 days, as compared with 1.8 days during symptomatic episodes. HSV was isolated from several sites in the genital tract and rectum in 17 percent of subclinical episodes and 22 percent of symptomatic episodes. Half the episodes of subclinical shedding of HSV occurred within seven days of a symptomatic recurrence. The risk of subclinical shedding increased with the frequency of symptomatic recurrences. Subclinical shedding was more frequent among women with more than 12 recurrences per year than among those with no symptomatic recurrences (odds ratio, 3.3; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 7.9); it was also more frequent among women who had recently acquired genital herpes (odds ratio for women with HSV acquired in the past year as compared with those who had had the infection for a year or more, 1.85; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.1 to 3.1).

Conclusions: Among women with a history of genital herpes infection, subclinical shedding of HSV is common and accounts for nearly one third of the total days of reactivation of HSV infection in the genital tract. Women with frequent symptomatic recurrences also have frequent subclinical shedding and may be at high risk for transmitting HSV.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cervix Uteri / virology
  • Female
  • Genitalia, Female / virology*
  • Herpes Genitalis / transmission
  • Herpes Genitalis / virology*
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / isolation & purification*
  • Herpesvirus 2, Human / isolation & purification*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Rectum / virology
  • Recurrence
  • Vulva / virology