Every few weeks, Dr. Vanessa Cullins, a board-certified obstetrician/ gynecologist and vice president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood® Federation of America, will be answering your questions here. To ask her your own question, click here.
Dear Dr. Vanessa,
Considering the pervasiveness of oral herpes, how come you never hear about asking someone if they have it before you lock lips with them? Would that just be rude? It wouldn’t be rude if you were asking about genital herpes before you had intercourse with someone.
You’re right. Oral herpes is extremely common. Up to 80 percent of teens and adults have it. And many of them are unaware that they have it because they have never had a typical “cold sore” or “fever blister” on the mouth or lips — or they may not have had one in years.
Most people with oral herpes get it during childhood from their parents, relatives, or friends. Brief, direct contact — like being kissed good bye — is all that is needed to pass the infection. So, if you’re worried about getting cold sores, it would make just as much sense to ask your grandmother if she’s had them before kissing her as asking your girlfriend or boyfriend.
The simplest answer to your question is that while it can’t hurt to ask about oral herpes before kissing someone, there is really no need — just assume that most people already have it. And, of course, do not to kiss anyone with obvious cold sores. That’s about all you can do.
Genital herpes is also common, but less common than oral herpes — about 25 percent of teens and adults have genital herpes. You can certainly ask about genital herpes and other infections before having sex with a partner. But just be aware that, like oral herpes, many people don’t even know that they have genital herpes. And some people who know they have it will lie.
So, it’s best to use condoms with all new partners and partners with whom you don’t plan on having a lasting relationship. Condoms can also be helpful to couples when only one partner has been diagnosed with genital herpes. Condoms do not offer perfect protection against herpes, but they do reduce the risk.
Also, don’t let someone with cold sores give you oral sex because oral herpes can get spread to the genitals. Genital herpes can also be spread to the mouth during oral sex.
Even though there is no cure for herpes, medications can lower the number and severity of outbreaks. The good news is that even though herpes can be painful and bothersome, it is not the end of the world.