There are two types of herpes, both of which are common manageable infections that can be contracted through oral sex. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is more commonly associated with oral herpes, and HSV-2 is typically associated with genital herpes. However, both strains can cause oral herpes if your mouth comes into contact with the virus, and both strains can cause genital herpes as well. Learn more about HSV-1 and HSV-2 so you can better understand how transmission happens and what you can do to protect yourself and your partner.
HSV-1 is often referred to as oral herpes because it usually causes sores around the mouth, nose, cheeks, and chin. HSV-2 is typically called genital herpes because it usually causes sores on the genitals. However, it is possible to get oral herpes from HSV-2 or to contract genital herpes from HSV-1. The location of the sores is determined not by the herpes strain, but by the area where the virus is contracted.
Herpes is transmitted from one person to another when the virus comes into contact with broken skin or mucous membrane tissues. You have mucous membrane tissues inside the mouth and on the genitals, so you can contract herpes through both locations. The place where you contract it will determine what type of herpes you get. If you have herpes, you can only spread it through the location that is infected. If you have oral herpes, you will spread it through contact with the mouth. Genital herpes is spread through contact with the genitals.
Herpes is most easily spread during an active outbreak. However, most individuals with herpes experience several days during the year when the virus has reactivated but does not show symptoms. This is known as viral shedding, asymptomatic reactivation, or asymptomatic shedding. When viral shedding occurs, you can spread herpes though you do not have any active sores.
There are many ways that herpes can spread. If you have oral herpes:
- You may give your partner genital herpes by performing oral sex when the herpes virus is active.
- You can give your partner oral herpes through mouth-to-mouth contact when the virus is active.
- You cannot give your partner herpes through genital-to-genital contact.
- Your partner cannot contract your oral herpes by performing oral sex on you.
If you have genital herpes:
- You can give your partner oral herpes if they perform oral sex on you when the virus is active.
- You can give your partner genital herpes through genital-to-genital contact when the virus is active.
- You will not give your partner herpes by performing oral sex on them.
- You cannot give your partner herpes through mouth-to-mouth contact.
Herpes symptoms are most pronounced when you first contract the virus, but some people have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The initial outbreak is usually the worst. Small fluid-filled blisters appear on the infected area and some patients experience flu-like symptoms as well. The symptoms are usually less pronounced in later outbreaks. Outbreaks tend to occur less frequently over time. HSV-2 is more likely to cause subsequent outbreaks than HSV-1.
How to Test for Herpes
If you have an active outbreak, your local healthcare provider can take a swab from the sore to determine whether you have herpes. If you do not have an active outbreak, your healthcare provider can do a blood test to look for herpes antibodies. These antibodies are only present after the initial outbreak, so a blood test may not detect herpes if it was recently contracted.
Doctors do not routinely test for herpes with other STIs, so you should not assume that you’ve been tested if you’ve received a regular STI screening. If you want to check for herpes, it’s important to discuss this STI specifically with your healthcare provider so you can get the testing you need.
A clinical study performed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center evaluated the risk of contracting genital herpes through oral sex. The study followed 1,207 non-pregnant women between the ages of 18 and 30 over the course of a year. The women were tested for HSV-1 and HSV-2 at four-month intervals.
When the study began, HSV-1 was present in 38% of the women age 20 or younger. The risk of contracting HSV-1 over the course of the study was 1.2 for sexually inactive women, 6.8 for women who had vaginal intercourse, and 9.8 for women who had receptive oral sex without vaginal intercourse. This demonstrates that receptive oral sex is a greater risk factor for HSV-1 transmission than vaginal intercourse.
This and other similar studies have demonstrated an increase in herpes transmission rates which coincides with an increase in oral sexual activity. As with all types of sex, there is a risk of contracting STIs like herpes when you have skin to skin contact.
By the Numbers
Herpes is a very common STI, but many people don’t know that they have it. For this reason, it’s best to use safe sex practices at all times. You or your partner may have a herpes infection that you’re not aware of.
- Nearly 90% of people with genital herpes are unaware of the infection.
- Globally, an estimated 2/3 of the population under age 50 has HSV-1.
- In the United States, about half of all people between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-1.
- In the United States, about 1 in 8 people between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes.
The more you know about the herpes virus, the better you can protect yourself and your partner. Oral sex can cause the transmission of both oral and genital herpes depending on which partner is infected. There is no cure for herpes, but there are medications that make it easier to manage. If you’ve been previously diagnosed with herpes, the medical team at Nurx can prescribe genital or oral herpes treatment online and deliver the medication to your door with free shipping.