Dear Dr. Kate: When Should I Tell a Partner About Oral Herpes?

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Dr. Kate is an OB/GYN at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City and she answers your medical questions here every two weeks. To ask her your own question, click here.

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

Dear D.K.M.K.,

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.


  1. Trust me…you can definitely get a horrible case of a primary herpes outbreak from someone who’s never even had a cold sore outbreak (but is obviously then still carries herpes Type 1). I feel very fortunate I’ve never had another outbreak, but I was bedridden for 3 weeks – really messes up your life for the time being, particularly when you’re waiting for test results to see if you have type 1, or type 2. And it’s difficult to go through alone if you’re not in a serious relationship.

    My gyno told me she sees a lot of guys giving type 1 to girls via oral sex, but it doesn’t seem to be common in the reverse (i.e. girls giving it to guys. But check with your doctor to confirm!)

  2. from experience, between outbreak transmission seems unlikely.. My BF of 11 years gets coldsores and when he has an outbreak we avoid kissing on the mouth, or kiss away from the sore (so big snogs are out of the question but little pecks are doable and kissing cheek, neck etc is fine) and oral sex for me is out of the question till it’s healed but these precautions seem to work as I’ve never had a cold sore :0) Of course it may be that I’m resistant or I’ve been infected an am asymtomatic or have cleared it but so far so good :0)

  3. This is so true! My fiance has oral herpes and we never thought about it until I had my first outbreak of genital herpes that I got from his oral herpes!

    Be careful always!

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