Dear Dr. Peg
Recently my girlfriend was diagnosed with vaginal Herpes Type 1 that I’ve given her orally. We are both pretty good kids and haven't kissed too many other people. But my question is, seeing as how it can pretty much be assumed that I’ve transmitted the disease to her, is there any danger in me continuing to perform oral sex on her? If I already have it and we know that between the two of us all we have is herpes Type 1, is there still a danger?
This is a great question, because it brings up two issues: virus spread, and herpes in relationships. I’ll address them one at a time. In my column Curious About Cold Sores, I explained that there are two Types of Herpes Simplex viruses, Type 1(HSV1) and Type 2 (HSV2). Usually HSV1 lives on the face and HSV2 lives on the genitals. However, as you and your girlfriend so clearly illustrate, Herpes viruses are flexible, and can take up residence in either location.
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by danger, but I’m guessing you are referring to contagion. As it stands now, you have oral herpes and she has genital herpes, both HSV1. You have already passed the virus to her genitals, so continuing to perform oral sex on her won’t do anything, except make her happy. Go for it.
It is possible, but unlikely, that she could now develop oral lesions and/or that you could develop genital lesions. Once you have one established herpes site on your body, it’s rare to develop another, probably because your immune system makes antibodies to the virus. Also, now that you have HSV1, you are less likely to catch HSV2. There appears to be some cross-protection in the antibodies that are formed. Finally, people with HSV1 tend to have fewer recurrent outbreaks than those with HSV2. So you could even consider yourself lucky.
The second issue this brings up is how to handle herpes as a couple. What do you do if one of you has it and the other doesn’t? How do you talk about this with a prospective partner?
The couples I’ve known who deal with herpes in the healthiest way are those who tell me, “We have herpes.” In other words, they see it as a shared problem. They don’t expend a lot of energy trying to prevent passing it to each other, or let it put a crimp in their sex life. Their love for each other and their desire to express that love sexually overrides their worry about contagion.
I’m not suggesting you blithely rub your open sores all over each other. It still makes sense to avoid contact with open sores, for comfort’s sake if nothing else. I’m just pointing out that, for the sake of your relationship, it makes sense not to obsess about it. And medically speaking, herpes is very rarely a big deal.
If you have herpes and are in a new relationship, I think it’s only fair to inform your prospective partner before you have sex. Ideally, you’ll be close enough emotionally by that time that you can talk freely about such things, and figure out how you as a couple want to handle the situation. I realize this isn’t always easy, since our society still has lots of judgment and stigma around sex-related topics of any kind, and having a sexually transmitted infection can be emotionally upsetting. If you need help, the medical practitioners and/or the counselors at the Student Health Center would be happy to meet with you and your partner to answer questions and help you discuss it together.