I think that this is the question that I hear most often, particularly from young people in their college years. However, I’ve also been asked about the relationship between genital herpes and oral sex by older people, married people… and even doctors!
A lot of people have no idea that…
1. Cold sores are caused by a herpes virus
2. Unprotected oral sex can lead to transmission of that “oral” herpes virus to the genitals
3. This can happen even if someone doesn’t have a visible sore at the time they’re having sex
For a long time, HSV-1 was thought of as the ‘oral herpes virus’ while HSV-2 was thought of as the ‘genital herpes virus.’ Not any more. In recent years, doctors and scientists have realized that a growing number of genital herpes infections are caused by “oral” herpes. They’re expecting that one day soon more than half of genital herpes cases will be caused by HSV-1, if that hasn’t happened already.
Why am I telling you this? It’s actually for two reasons.
First, I’d like to work on de-stigmatizing genital herpes infections. Most people consider cold sores to be “no big deal,” and not something worth disclosing because they’re a common ailment that many people have from childhood. However, genital herpes is so stigmatized that people colloquially use it as synonymous with dirty. Some people even call glitter “craft herpes.” (Seriously?) That’s silly when it’s a common infection that affects a huge percentage of the population, even if many people with genital and oral herpes have no idea that they’re infected. If we could talk about it more honestly, I think people would be less scared. I also think they’d be at less risk.
Second, I’d like to encourage people to think about safe sex beyond using condoms for vaginal and anal intercourse – oral sex needs to be safe too. Let’s make latex and open discussion about herpes a regular part of the sexual routine. It’s possible to have safer oral sex by using condoms and dental dams. It just doesn’t usually occur to people that doing so might be necessary.
Interested in safer oral sex supplies?
Check out the Wellness Office’s Condom Fairy program.
Dr. Elizabeth Boskey is an AASECT certified sexuality educator and certified health education specialist who has been involved in sex education for over two decades. She writes about sexually transmitted diseases at About.com and covers health topics for several other websites and news outlets. She’s also a Visiting Scholar for the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University. Feel free to e-mail Dr. Boskey any questions or suggestions for future blog topics.