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Yes, you can definitely transmit herpes via kissing — but as with so many things, there's more to it than a simple yes or no answer. Herpes spreads through skin-to-skin contact, typically kissing or sex. The type of herpes that you are exposed to depends on your activities. Oral herpes is transmitted by the HSV-1 virus, while genital herpes (HSV-2) is transmitted by some form of sex or more intimate kissing.
There's a group of about 100 viruses¹ in the herpes virus family. Both humans and animals are susceptible to these viruses, but only eight or so can infect humans. From that group of eight, the herpes simplex virus is the one that gives humans the most trouble.
Herpes is also dangerous because once you're infected with the virus — in either form — there is no way to eradicate its presence in your body. Sure, it's dormant most of the time, but a recurrence is always possible.
We all know that HSV is spread through skin-to-skin contact — so much so that HSV-1 is an incredibly common infection that affects over 50% of Americans, and one in six Americans carry the HSV-2 virus.
You can get the kind of herpes that typically causes cold sores around your mouth and lips by having skin-to-skin contact with someone who is shedding the virus. You can also spread oral herpes through indirect contact.
Touching the facial skin — patting someone on the cheek is not something you'd think would spread herpes, but if there are active virus particles on that person's face, you could wind up with a cold sore.
Sharing inorganic objects such as lip balm, razors, or drinking glasses.
You can get HSV-1 in the genital area. If your partner has HSV-1 and you're receiving oral sex, then the chances that you'll get a herpes sore on your genitals are fairly high. The HSV-2 virus is only transmitted during sex.
One of the scarier things about genital herpes of either type is that pregnant women can transmit the disease to the baby if they have a vaginal birth during a herpes outbreak. This can cause a life-threatening infection in the baby.
Some herpes symptoms are similar to those of the flu,² such as fever and body aches. Other skin symptoms can be mild and mistaken for ingrown hair or a pimple. However, some signs of herpes infection are quite identifiable:
HSV-1: The telltale sign is cold sores or blisters on the lips or mouth. They last a couple of weeks and heal on their own. They're more annoying than anything else, but expect recurrences that subside over the years.
HSV-2: Blisters, red bumps, pain, and itching in the genital area are noticeable symptoms of herpes. These blisters can migrate from your vagina, penis, and anus down to the insides of your thighs.
These are some other indications that you've contracted HSV-2:
Burning when urine touches the sore
Trouble urinating because the sores are blocking your urethra
Swollen glands around your pelvis, underarms, and throat
Fever, chills, and headache
Feeling tired and achy
The first flare-up, or outbreak, usually happens 2–20 days after exposure to the virus. In some cases, the virus remains dormant for years.
What makes HSV-2 more dangerous is that many people are asymptomatic, so they don't know they are a carrier until they go for a checkup or until a partner catches the disease. Both variations of the virus are seriously sneaky in that they are dormant in nerve cells until some sort of hormonal change or stress causes the virus to activate.
The concept of virus shedding became part of the societal conversation during Covid, but other viruses do the same thing when activated. When you are viral shedding, this is when you are contagious and likely to transmit the disease — even if you don't have any symptoms.
Yes, herpes is absolutely contagious. You can even spread the virus if it's dormant in your body (you don't have any cold or genital sores), especially if your partner or anyone else you're close to has any kind of compromised or suppressed immune system.
According to the World Health Organization³ (WHO), having HSV-2 triples the risk of getting HIV. In rare cases,⁴ pregnant women with HSV2 also get hepatitis.
Research⁵ indicates that both physical and psychological stressors cause herpes flare-ups. Fever, hormonal imbalances, and injuries such as sunburn are all factors that can spur an outbreak after a long period of dormancy.
You can prevent spreading herpes with simple behavior modification:
Always use condoms and dental dams during any genital or anal sexual activity.
Learn the signs of an impending flare-up, and stop having sex when you notice burning, itching, and unpleasant tingling in the genital area.
Avoid sex during a herpes outbreak.
Stay celibate until the sores are completely gone and the scabs have healed and fallen off.
Don't kiss anybody anywhere if you have a cold sore or fever blister — especially children or pregnant women.
Here are the less obvious ways to stop the spread of herpes, including to yourself:
Don't touch the sores. If you do, wash your hands immediately (use the Covid washing method, singing Happy Birthday to yourself).
Don't share anything that's touched you near your mouth or genitals — this includes damp towels and food.
Do not wet a contact lens with saliva. Your eyes are not immune from herpes.
Always tell prospective and current partners that you have herpes. And if you have recurring outbreaks, discuss medication with your doctor.
There's no cure for herpes, but you can manage symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications if they feel your case is severe enough to warrant more serious intervention. Here are some other helpful ways to manage symptoms:
Take over-the-counter meds (Tylenol, ibuprofen) to relieve pain.
Put a cold compress on the sores to help with itching and pain.
Women with labial lesions can pee in a tub of warm water for pain relief.
These tips may speed up healing:
Keep sores open to the air — don't use bandages.
Wash the sores gently, then pat dry.
Don't use an over-the-counter medication unless your doctor recommends one.
Wear loose-fitting cotton underwear and avoid tight-fitting pants.
Herpes is nothing to be ashamed of — people get it every day and go on to live happily and fulfilled lives. As time goes by, the recurrence of sores becomes less frequent, and most people forget they have ever had the disease.
Also, remember that people who have never had sex can get herpes from sharing a lip balm or a drink, so it's not the scarlet letter that you previously might have believed.
Finally, herpes doesn't live long enough outside the body for you to catch it from a toilet seat.
Chapter 68 herpesviruses (1996)
What are the symptoms of herpes? | Planned Parenthood
Herpes simplex virus | World Health Organization
Genital herpes | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Oral & genital herpes | Planned Parenthood
Herpes simplex: Who gets and causes | American Academy of Dermatology Association
Cold sores | NHS
How is herpes prevented? | Planned Parenthood