Why You Should Tell Your Partner If You Have HSV-1

Oral herpes poses a risk beyond cold sores

Dating when you have a cold sore on your lips or mouth can be embarrassing. But embarrassment shouldn't stop you from telling a sexual partner if you feel a sore coming on or there is one hidden behind your lip.

Even if you're on the mend, cold sores, which are also known as fever blisters, are highly contagious and may do more than just transmit the infection to your partner. It may increase your risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The article will explore the viral cause of most cold sores and the risks associated with them. Plus, it offers strategies for discussing a cold sore with your partner.

Couple facing each other on a couch
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Facts About Cold Sores

Cold sores usually appear as a single watery blister on the lip or mouth, or several blisters that consolidate into one.

They are usually caused by herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is the cousin of HSV-2, which is primarily associated with genital herpes.

However, HSV-1 can also lead to genital herpes during oral sex and HSV-2 can sometimes lead to cold sores.

HSV-1 is very common. About 67% of the world's population under age 50 has HSV-1.

Cold sores affect roughly 3 of every 1,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of these, 33% will experience subsequent attacks triggered by stress, fever, and other causes.


Once you have HSV-1 it doesn't go away. If you develop a cold sore, the virus can spread more easily.

Cold sores are typically spread through saliva and direct contact. You can get them through kissing or sharing lip balm with someone who has a cold sore.

Cold sores can be painful and may take up to 14 days before active healing begins.

Recap

Cold sores are typically caused by the common herpes simplex virus-1 and usually transmitted through saliva, such as during kissing. They can also lead to genital herpes during oral sex.

Why It's Important to Tell Your Partner

Herpes viruses are extremely contagious. And it's not just the risk of spreading a cold sore that you should be worried about.

This is because herpes can spread from the mouth to the genitals or from the genitals to the mouth. Skin-to-skin contact is all that is needed.

Having an open sore also increases your risk of an STI by providing the virus or bacteria a direct route into the body. Herpes can actually promote HIV infection by attracting the immune cells the HIV virus targets and infects.

To this end, it is just as important to discuss both of your sexual histories and not just herpes. As awkward as this may seem, it allows you both to explore whether it's time to get STI testing from your healthcare provider or local health clinic.

How to Tell Your Partner

It may be difficult to talk about these issues before sex. Still, you're far more likely to be able to build a lasting relationship based on the truth.

People are willing to take risks for love. They're also less likely to blame a partner for giving them herpes if they went into the relationship with open eyes. Here's a sample script that may help:

You: "I really like you, but before we go any further, I wanted to tell you that I may have a cold sore."

Partner: "So?"

You: "Well, because they're contagious and caused by a herpes virus, I think it's important to let someone who I'm interested in dating to know that I get cold sores before I kiss them or sleep with them."

Partner: "Cold sores are herpes?"

You: "Yes."

Partner: "I had no idea. My ex used to get cold sores a lot. What does that mean for me?"

You: "Well, the herpes virus can be transmitted during kissing and also during oral sex. I always practice safe oral sex, but even that's not perfect."

Partner: "We never used condoms for oral sex. Does that mean I have herpes?"

You: "Not necessarily. The virus isn't transmitted every time you have sex. But it might make you feel better to get tested and find out."

Partner: "There's a test for herpes?"

You: "Yeah. It's a blood test. It can tell whether you have ever been infected even if you don't have symptoms. What do you think about that?"

From that point forward, allow your partner to make their own decision without stress or coercion. There doesn't have to be an immediate answer. The one thing you can control is your sexual decisions, including how you choose to protect yourself.

Recap

HSV-1 is highly contagious, so if you have a cold sore, it's important to mention it to your partner before you kiss or have sexual contact.

If You Were Infected During Oral Sex

If you are someone who acquired genital herpes during oral sex, it's a good idea to talk to your partner about what happened. Think about educating them, rather than engaging in blame.

It's unlikely that they were trying to intentionally transmit an STI. Unfortunately, a lot of people with cold sores are unaware of the risk of transmitting herpes during oral sex.

Fortunately, this risk can be greatly reduced by using appropriate barriers or suppressive treatments.

Summary

Cold sores are usually caused by HSV-1, a common strain of the herpes virus that's highly contagious.

Having a cold sore can also lead to genital herpes during oral sex and an open sore may offer an entry point for other STIs.

It's important to have an honest conversation with a partner related to any cold sores so that you can take steps to protect and/or support each other.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Looker KJ, Magaret AS, May MT, et al. Global and regional estimates of prevalent and incident herpes simplex virus type 1 infections in 2012. DeLuca NA, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(10):e0140765. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140765

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2 in persons aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Cold sores.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet (detailed).