Dear Dr. Kate,
I am a woman with oral herpes. Is this something I should tell new partners before kissing them? (Assuming I am not in the middle of an outbreak.) And if he asks about the possibility of contracting oral herpes from me between outbreaks, what can I tell him are the risks? What about the risk of me giving him oral herpes if I give him a blowjob between outbreaks?
— Don’t-Kiss-Me Kate
The issue of disclosing an oral herpes infection is really tricky. On the one hand, you want to be honest with your partners — that there is a chance of transmitting the infection when you kiss, even if you’re not having an outbreak. But it’s also true that about 60-80% of adults in the US have the “oral herpes” (herpes simplex I) virus. So the odds are that your partner already has the virus, even if they’re not aware of it.
We don’t know exactly what the odds of transmission are — you’re right that if you don’t have a cold sore, the odds of giving them the infection are lower, but we don’t know how much lower. Same goes for transmitting the virus during oral sex — it’s less common (but very possible) to give your partner genital herpes, even if you’re between outbreaks. The good news there — if you can call it that! — is that genital herpes caused by the herpes type I virus is less intense, and less likely to recur, than the infection caused by the herpes type II virus. But it’s still a good reason to use a condom, even during oral sex.
— Dr. Kate
Dr. Kate is an OB/GYN at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City. She also lectures nationally on women’s health issues and conducts research on reproductive health. Check out more of her advice and ask her a question at Gynotalk.com.