Can I get herpes from giving my girlfriend oral sex?
After performing oral sex on my girlfriend, I break out with cold sores around my mouth. Am I at risk for herpes?
Lisa Oldson, MD on September 14, 2011
I’m glad you asked about herpes risks. Here are some thoughts for your consideration:
To answer your question, yes: cold sores can be a symptom of HSV-1 (which can cause oral or genital herpes) or HSV-2 (which usually causes genital herpes). Both forms of the virus can appear in either area of the body (mouth and genitals), although we don’t often see HSV -2 herpes around the mouth.
But are you certain you have cold sores? To the untrained eye, harmless pimples around the mouth can resemble cold sores. It’s also possible that you are experiencing a reaction from oral sex that’s manifesting as skin irritation. I mention this, because herpes outbreaks typically don’t occur regularly after exposure, as you describe.
Only a visual examination by your doctor will confirm whether you have cold sores, or some other skin condition. You can also learn more about herpes symptoms, complications and treatment in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.
Are you at risk for herpes? Well, have you and your girlfriend been tested for herpes and other common STDs? In other words, do you know if your girlfriend has herpes? You can get herpes if she has herpes and you don’t. If she does, and if you perform oral sex on her without the protection of a latex dental dam, then you are at risk for contracting the virus...although the risk isn’t significant. Given that many, if not most Americans do have evidence of HSV-1 on a blood test, you may well be positive already...even if you don’t get cold sores.
But because herpes, like other STDs, doesn’t always show obvious signs or symptoms, getting tested is the only way to be absolutely sure about whether one or both of you has a herpes infection.
If you or your girlfriend does test positive for herpes, don’t despair. Herpes is not life-threatening. And antiviral medications like Valacyclovir (Valtrex), Acyclovir (Zovirax) and Famciclovir (Famvir) are very effective in preventing or shortening the duration of herpes outbreaks.
Practice safer sex. Remember that herpes in adults is most often transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, or unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex. So ⎼ if it turns out that our girlfriend is positive for herpes and you are negative ⎼ you can greatly reduce your risk of infection by using a latex condom or dental dams during all sexual activity.
Thanks again for your important question. I wish you and your girlfriend good health!
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.