Someone asked us:
If someone gets cold sores, can they give a partner herpes when performing oral sex? Or is it a different kind of herpes entirely?
The way people talk about oral herpes can be confusing. A lot of people talk about getting cold sores, but don’t call it herpes. This may be because they only think of herpes as an STD and they know (or suspect) they did not get their cold sores from sexual behavior. Many people have been getting them since they were children.
But the truth is that cold sores are caused by herpes. Most cases of oral herpes are caused by one of two types of herpes, known as herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). It’s not strictly sexually transmitted. Herpes (both HSV-1 and HSV-2, which I’ll get to in a moment) is spread by skin-to-skin contact — which happens often through sexual contact, but can also happen during touching or kissing of a completely non-sexual nature, like from a parent to a child. Because it’s so easily spread, it’s estimated that about half of all Americans have oral herpes.
So the short answer to your question is yes, a person who has oral herpes can give a partner genital herpes by giving them oral sex. The reason for that is that both types of herpes — HSV-1 and HSV-2 (the other kind that usually causes sores on or around the genitals) — can live on either part of the body (and also the eyes). So a person with one kind of herpes can give another person the same kind of herpes on a different part of the body. However, it’s more likely for someone to pass herpes to the same part of their partner’s body (mouth to mouth or genitals to genitals). That’s because HSV-1 prefers to live on the mouth, while HSV-2 prefers to live in the genitals, just like some people prefer to live on a loud street with lots of action, and others prefer a quieter, more private place to live, but both can really do either.
If you have oral herpes and want to prevent spreading it, you should avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom, before rubbing your eyes, and before touching a contact lens. Don’t wet contact lenses with saliva. If you have a cold sore on your mouth, try not to kiss anyone. You should avoid giving oral sex while you have sores, and use a condom or dental dam on your partner other times. It’s most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.