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Hump Day: Is My Cold Sore Contagious?

Welcome to Hump Day, TrèsSugar's sex advice column! Are you confused about sex? Do you have trouble having an orgasm? Is there something you'd like to try but you're worried it's too weird? Send your questions to TrèsSugar, and our friend Dr. Charlie Glickman from Good Vibrations will offer his sound advice!

Today's Question:

“I know that cold sores are the same virus as herpes. Is it a bad idea to go down on my boy when I have one? Is it transmissible that way?” To hear what Dr. Glickman has to say, read more.

Dr. Glickman's Answer:

YES!!!

There are two types of herpes virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Oral herpes is usually HSV-1 and it’s estimated that 80 percent of the population has been exposed to it. Genital herpes is usually HSV-2 and it’s estimated that 25 percent of women and 12 percent of men have it. However, genital herpes can be caused by either version of the virus, so going down on someone when you have a cold sore (another name for a herpes outbreak) can spread it. To make things a bit more complicated, only about 1/3 of the people who have genital herpes are aware of it — either they’ve never had an outbreak or the outbreak was very mild. (See herpes.com for more info.)

Part of what makes herpes tricky is that it can be transmitted even when you don’t have a visible outbreak. The virus lives in your nervous system and every so often, it’ll come to the surface. It’s especially likely to happen when you’re sick or have been stressed for a while. There’s evidence that the virus starts shedding from the skin (and is therefore potentially contagious) before any visible symptoms. It’s a low risk, but it’s a possibility. To make matters worse, if the site of the shedding isn’t covered by a condom, it can be spread even when you’re practicing safer sex.

While herpes can be uncomfortable, it doesn’t represent nearly as much risk as other sexually transmissible infections (STIs) such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, human papilloma virus (HPV), or HIV. Having said that, there’s evidence that HSV-2 makes HIV transmission more likely. See this article for more information about how that works.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve seen a lot of people get really upset about STIs when they don’t get nearly as upset about any other health issue. I’ve also seen a lot of people who have all sorts of judgment about STIs but think nothing of going to work and sharing their flu germs (or worse)! STIs can be unpleasant, annoying, or life-threatening, but they don’t mean anything about the person who has them any more than chicken pox or measles do. Negative attitudes about STIs are a holdover from before we invented antibiotics and when diseases such as syphilis were seen as the wages of sin. But now we know that they’re just germs and we don’t need to shame people for having them. (Not that I’m saying that you’re doing that, but I wanted to mention it.)

The best thing that we can all do is to get tested for STIs regularly, even if you’ve never had a symptom. Lots of people have STIs and don’t know it. Check your local Planned Parenthood or other agency for information, although I recommend going with anonymous testing in order to ensure your privacy.

And safer sex is always a good choice. It’s easy to do, with a little practice. Using a lubricant can make safer sex more enjoyable since latex tends to have a bit more friction than skin. Try a silicone-based brand if you’re prone to yeast infections. Water-based brands are a bit easier to clean up since they rinse away.

If you or your partner don’t like the way condoms feel, try a different brand. The Japanese-process condoms such as Maxx and Skinless Skin are more sheer than other types. Or you could give Skyn a whirl. It’s made from polyisoprene, rather than latex, so it’s very sheer and both people will get more sensation.

Given that you have oral herpes, you might want to talk with your boyfriend about using condoms for oral sex. If you go that route, change the condom before having intercourse. That will make sure that you don’t spread the herpes virus to your vulva or vagina. It’ll also reduce the risk of your condom breaking; teeth can cause small abrasions that weaken the condom.

For an excellent, sex-positive read on safer sex, check out The Hot Guide to Safer Sex . It’s full of helpful advice and great tips.

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