Does It Make Sense To Tell Everyone You've Ever Kissed You Have Herpes?


I recently received the following question, and of course I had plenty to say in response.

I just read your fabulously informative and inspiring gonorrhea vacation article and wanted to get your perspective on how to deal ethically with an oral herpes diagnosis. I tested positive for HSV 1 and my doctor laughed at the idea of me phoning up everyone I've ever kissed and warning future partners of the risk of infection, considering the high prevalence. What would you do?

Fantastic question. This is actually something I have put a lot of thought into throughout the years, so I really appreciate the prompt to discuss this.

Right off the bat, I’d like to say that it was really invalidating and unprofessional for your doctor to respond that way. As someone who tries to be very diligent about health, I too have encountered doctors with disgusting bedside manner, and being scoffed at by a healthcare professional doesn’t feel good. However, I think the fact that you asked this question at all shows that you are a conscientious and compassionate person, so disregard that jerk doctor.

Before I get into this, let me take a moment to say that I am not a healthcare professional, nor do I seek to diagnose or treat anybody. This response will be an attempt to tackle this issue in a practical and realistic way based on my own personal opinion. As always, I encourage everyone to do their own research and form their own opinions, which will likely (and hopefully) differ from my own.

Does it make sense to call up everyone you’ve kissed? Yes and no. There are a lot of factors at play here. It certainly can do no physical harm to call up every person you’ve kissed and inform him or her, so from the viewpoint of ultimate altruism, yes, it makes sense. The risk in that is that your partners may respond like your doctor did and write you off altogether. But, if not telling them is bothering you, and you feel like telling them will ease your conscience, go for it. First, let’s break it down a little more.

...it is so important to get regularly tested

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I tried to find some basic facts on HSV 1, but almost every site had little to no information and immediately redirected to HSV 2, so I wound up at www.herpes.com and the following facts were taken from that website. Herpes Simplex Virus 1 antibodies are found in 80-90% of Americans. HSV 1 is famous for causing cold sores, also referred to as fever blisters, which often appear on and around the mouth.

The sores last a couple of days to a couple of weeks, but usually an average of eight to 10 days. Since HSV 1 is a virus, there is no way to get rid of it; however, many people never experience sores of any kind. Sores are essentially viral shedding, so they are more likely to appear when your immune system is weakened by something such as stress, antibiotics, illness, etc.

Related: What Happened When I Found Out I Had Gonorrhea

What’s tricky about HSV 1 is that it is at its most contagious before the sore appears and in the first few days of the outbreak. Seasoned veterans of cold sores may be able to tell when an outbreak is coming due to the pre-sore “tingly sensation,” but there is really no way to predict it for sure.

You can spread the virus to others even if you are not having an outbreak, but transmission is much more likely to occur when a sore is present. You can also get it by sharing drinks with people, sharing chapstick, etc. HSV 1 can be passed to the genitals, even though the majority of genital herpes are HSV 2. At the risk of rambling on about things you can research further on your own, I will conclude my fact section and get on to the part where I talk about myself a bunch.

I actually have a fun personal history with HSV 1 and cold sores. I’ve had the virus since I was a baby, but my outbreaks have been few and far between. In fact, I can only recall two instances where I’ve had a cold sore. My first memorable one is a fantastic cautionary tale. I was in high school. I had a boyfriend with whom I only engaged in oral sex, and we hadn’t had any penis-in-vagina intercourse. I had a cold sore some time in the early autumn, and thought nothing of it.

So why don’t I use dental dams to kiss people?

A few weeks later, ye olde high school boyfriend had a singular bump on his dick and was very concerned. At that point, we hadn’t put two and two together, since Googling “genital herpes” usually shows images of HSV 2 as opposed to HSV 1, and the two look very different on the genitals. He went to the doctor, and lo and behold: I had given my sweetie genital herpes from a good ol' blowjob.

Scene two, cold-sore outbreak two. You may recall my recent gonorrhea post. After receiving the high-dosage antibiotic shot to treat my gonorrhea, I had a really beautiful, blossoming cold sore that lasted almost two weeks because I couldn’t stop picking at it. Yummy! I abstained from oral sex and kissing at first, but the guy I was seeing at the time just bit the bullet and started making out with me anyway after a couple of days. He didn’t get a cold sore. Scene.

Through anonymous messages and Facebook comments, I have learned that some of you think of me as that crazy sex educator who won’t suck a dick without a condom. I hope this sheds a bit of light on the method to my “madness.” So why don’t I use dental dams to kiss people?

Good question. It really all boils down to what you consider socially acceptable and practical. People really don’t take cold sores that seriously, because they generally don’t occur below the waist, and that makes it “okay,” whereas folks with genital herpes are heavily stigmatized by society. It’s ironic that the same type of viral outbreak can cause such different reactions simply based on its location on the human body.

Let’s bring it back to you. If I were in your situation, I probably wouldn’t call anyone. If I had an outbreak a day or two after making out with someone, however, I might get in touch with them and be like, “YO WATCH OUT, just got a cold sore… I hope you dodge that bullet.” I want to reassure you that whatever you feel comfortable doing will be appropriate. I suppose that’s really all I have to say on the matter, because it really is your decision. If you’ve read my gonorrhea post, you know that I thought it was best to call all my partners. But at the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own health.

This is why it is so important to get regularly tested; you can’t assume that someone else will be responsible enough to know his or her own health status, much less be truthful about it. In this particular instance, I say: Relax, look into Valtrex if you have frequent outbreaks, and continue being health-conscious!

Next: How To Talk About STI's With Friends Who Have One
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