Anonymous on November 21, 2011

How can you get oral herpes?

So, I know there’s a difference between genital herpes and oral herpes. But how can you get oral herpes?

answered by Lisa Oldson, MD on November 21, 2011

That’s a good question.

First, what is oral herpes? Oral herpes is a skin infection that can cause sores around the mouth, often called cold sores. These sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. To be clear, two related strains of herpes simplex virus exist – HSV-1 and HSV-2 – which can cause oral or genital herpes.

HSV-1 is responsible for the majority of oral herpes infections, and HSV-2 is responsible for a majority of genital herpes infections. But keep in mind that either virus can cause oral or genital herpes. And genital herpes infections caused by HSV-1 are on the rise, especially in young people.

Back to your question: how can you get oral herpes? Both types of herpes simplex virus are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.

Most people with oral herpes got it from a parent or family member’s kiss when they’re young. In fact, by the time people reach adulthood, oral herpes is relatively common. More than half of the adults in the United States have an oral herpes infection. Of course, it’s also possible to get oral herpes from kissing someone who has oral herpes ⎼ and the risk increases if the person has active cold sores.

The good news is, if you have oral herpes, you can talk to a doctor about treatment, if needed.

Just so you know it is possible to pass an oral herpes infection to the genitals of a sexual partner. Genital HSV-1 infections are typically transmitted during oral sex...but if you have oral herpes, you can protect your partner if you give oral sex by using condoms or dental dams.

If you have further questions about oral herpes, you can learn more about preventing and testing for HSV-1 and HSV-2 in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 +2.

Lisa Oldson, MD

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.

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