We both have herpes — so what about oral sex?

Originally Published: November 21, 2008
Share this
Dear Alice,

If me and my partner have HSV-2 can we give each other oral sex?

Dear Reader,

Well done to both of you for knowing each other's herpes status! Having the "I have herpes" discussion with your partner can be difficult, but certainly has big payoffs for keeping you both healthy. Even though you and your partner are both already infected with HSV-2, after reading through the information here, you may still decide using condoms during oral sex (and any other sex) is your best bet.

The herpes simplex viruses, usually referred to as HSV-1 (or oral) and HSV-2 (or genital), are two distinct viruses; the main difference between the two types of herpes being where they tend to make their home in the body. HSV-1 most often lives in a collection of nerves near the ear, whereas HSV-2 resides in a bundle of nerves at the base of the spine. The virus's home in the body affects where breakouts will occur (around the mouth or around the genitals).

HSV-2 is commonly called genital herpes, because an outbreak of HSV-2 causes genital ulcers or sores, and in some very serious cases, eye or brain infections. Almost all HSV-2 infections are of the genitals — which is why vaginal or anal sex is the most likely way to get genital herpes. However, it is possible (though rare) to get an oral infection of HSV-2 by performing oral sex on someone with HSV-2.  

Like HSV-2, HSV-1 infection can be genital or oral, but most commonly HSV-1 appears as an oral infection, accompanied by fever blisters or cold sores around the mouth. HSV-1 can spread to another person's mouth through kissing or to the genitals through oral sex. Oral HSV-1 is fairly common among American adults — up to 80 percent have oral herpes.

Let's look at different scenarios for HSV-1 and HSV-2 transmission:

Can you get…

 

HSV-1 from oral sex?

Yes

If either you or your partner has an oral HSV-1 or a genital HSV-1 infection, oral-genital sex may transmit this virus in either direction.

HSV-2 from oral sex?

Yes, but it is less likely

If you are the giver of oral sex (your mouth is on someone's genitals) there is a possibility of getting oral HSV-2 if your partner has a genital HSV-2 infection.

If you are the recipient of oral sex (someone's mouth is on your genitals) there's a chance of your partner giving you HSV-2 if they have an oral HSV-2 infection.

HSV-1 from having vaginal or anal sex?

Yes

If your partner has genital HSV-1, genital-to-genital contact (having sex) may transmit HSV-1.

HSV-2 from having vaginal or anal sex?

Yes

The HSV-2 virus thrives in the genital area, and is most often transmitted via genital-to-genital sexual contact.

All this information about transmitting herpes may seem a bit scary; keep in mind that while herpes can cause uncomfortable sores on the mouth or genitals, it does not generally cause other health problems.

For both HSV-1 and HSV-2, almost two-thirds of people who are infected have no symptoms. In other words, your naked eye will most likely not be able to see any signs of herpes. Because of this, knowing your herpes status is the key to protecting yourself and your partner. Columbia students can visit Open Communicator or call x4-2284 for make an appointment for testing if they suspect an oral or genital sore is herpes. The American Social Health Association's Herpes Resource Center is open to everyone and has information on herpes testing, treatment, and safer sex.

Check out Oral Sex and Herpes in the Go Ask Alice! archives for additional information about safer oral sex and using barrier protection methods.

While there is no magic bullet solution for oral sex with herpes, with open communication, safer sex strategies, and a problem-solving spirit, mutual oral pleasure is within your reach.

Alice