Herpes on the mouth — contagious?

Originally Published: November 1, 1993 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 28, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I get herpes blisters next to my lips occasionally for which I take Zovirax to control. I avoid kissing people when I've a blister but sometimes people just kiss me hello on the lips anyway. What about contagion risk with this sort of contact? What about risk of contagion when I don't have a blister? I feel very uncomfortable to discuss this with newly formed relationships that have romantic potential, yet I want to be sure not to pass this condition on. What suggestions can you give me?

Signed,
Wants the facts

Dear Wants the facts,

Your concern about transmitting herpes by kissing hello is quite reasonable — herpes infections are extremely contagious when a sore is present. When you have open lesions, you should avoid direct contact with others, including kissing. When someone leans to kiss you on the mouth when you have an active sore, how about offering your cheek? Also, be careful not to touch an active sore yourself, because the virus can be transmitted through your fingertips. If you do, wash your hands as soon as possible. Transmission is also possible, even if no sore is present, through the "shedding" of the virus particles from the skin. Herpes can also be contagious right before a sore is present, when many individuals with herpes report feeling a burning, tingling, or painful sensation before the sore appears.

In terms of relationships, it doesn't mean that you can't kiss anyone. It's understandable that talking about herpes with a new person in your life could feel uncomfortable. One way to help with this feeling is for you to be as informed as possible about herpes. This will allow you to better answer any questions a partner may have when you tell them. Let them know that you only get the blisters occasionally, that many people already have the antibodies to Herpes Simplex I from childhood and will be able to counteract the virus, that you will both be careful when your sores are active, that it's not the end of the world, that you are still a sexual being, that stress, anxiety, poor nutrition and skin irritation bring on flare-ups, etc. All of this allows them to make an informed decision and share the responsibility of reducing risk. You might consider a visit to a health care provider to discuss any specific concerns you may have. If you're a Columbia student, you can contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to schedule an appointment. For additional information on herpes, visit the American Sexual Health Association's Herpes Resource Center.

Never fear, relationships bring about many kinds of disclosures as well as much hope and happiness.

Alice