Herpes viral shedding means that the herpes virus — either type, HSV1 or HSV2 — can be present on the surface of the skin when no visible signs or symptoms of a herpes outbreak are present. (Genital HSV-1 sheds less than genital HSV-2; download the handouts from the free e-book for specifics on the percent of days the virus is shedding, depending on the strain and location on the body.) Studies have shown that within the first few months of initial herpes exposure, the rate of viral shedding is much higher than after the body has a chance to build up a defense by releasing antibodies in the bloodstream.
An average of six months after the first herpes outbreak, viral shedding is said to occur around 5-20% of the time, depending on what study you read. Shedding virus doesn’t necessarily mean that there is enough virus to be passed to a partner, though. Mayo Clinic experts have determined that around 70 percent of all cases of genital herpes were acquired when an infected partner showed no physical signs or symptoms, but when HSV was actively shedding. Visible herpes outbreaks are the result of herpes virus shedding to the point that it overwhelms the skin to create visible sores.
Where does viral shedding happen? If you’ve had a herpes outbreak, then it’s safe to assume that herpes viral shedding happens right around that general location. How the virus travels to the surface of your skin from the base of your spine is through your nerve pathways. Once there is an established path after the first outbreak, the virus tends to take that path of least resistance (but not always). If you haven’t had an active herpes outbreak and you found out that you have HSV-1 or HSV-2 through a herpes blood test, then you can't determine where the virus might be shedding. The best thing to do when disclosing to a potential partner is tell them you are a carrier of HSV, but haven’t had an actual herpes outbreak.