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Oral Herpes Overview

On This Page: Causes / Transmission | How Common / Serious Is It? | Risk Factors | Prevention

What Is Herpes?

The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a sexually transmitted disease with multiple strains; the two most common strains are herpes type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes type 2 (HSV-2).

Both types of herpes can be contracted through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Herpes is often asymptomatic meaning that it will show no symptoms at all, but the biggest tell-tale sign that may occur is an outbreak of painful blisters. It is impossible to determine how long the virus has been a part of your DNA because it can exist without symptoms for years.

Take Charge of Your Health

Oral herpes can be transmitted by kissing, sharing eating utensils or drinks, or during sex. Since oral herpes can be contracted from both Type 1 and Type 2 strains of the Herpes Simplex Virus, our doctors recommend getting tested for both of these HSV strains at the same time.

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What is Oral Herpes?

Oral herpes is just a term that indicates where on the body the virus is producing symptoms if any. The virus that causes oral herpes can be either HSV-1 or HSV-2.

There is a common misconception that oral herpes is exclusively caused by HSV-1, although this is not the case. Oral herpes can be caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2, but the misconception comes because oral herpes just tends to more often be attributed to HSV-1.  That said, it must be noted that our oral herpes test only looks for HSV-1. It is highly recommended that when testing for herpes, you test for both HSV-1 and HSV-2.

The herpes simplex virus will usually remain in the area that it first comes into contact with. When it first touches the skin, it will infect the skin cells, then it will infect deeper into your nerve cells within your DNA. Because the virus literally lives inside of DNA, this has made it very difficult to study.

Oral herpes can most easily be identified by cold sores1 or fever blisters around the mouth, though does not recommend relying on symptoms for answers. The only way to really know if you have herpes is by getting tested.

Causes of Oral Herpes

How Is It Transmitted?

Herpes is extremely contagious. It can be transmitted easily through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. You do not need to have sex in order to contract herpes as it can also be spread through kissing (the most common HSV-1 transmission culprit) or touching.

The herpes virus will normally remain local to where your body first came into contact with it, but it is possible for you to touch an open sore and then touch your mouth, genitals, or eyes, therefore spreading it to those locations.

HSV is most contagious when sores are exposed and fluid is present, however, it is still possible for the virus to be transmitted when the skin looks clear. There are a few days a year when the virus becomes most active but causes no symptoms, this is called viral shedding.

Is it Contagious?

Yes, herpes is very contagious. It can spread through something as simple as touching, kissing, or sharing drinks.

How Common is it?

Oral herpes is extremely common, making the stigma and shame that usually accompanies being diagnosed with it uncalled-for and pointless. According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), over half of all U.S. adults have oral herpes (most commonly HSV-1).2

How Serious is it?

If 50 percent of the current adult population has oral herpes, your odds of having come into contact with the virus are fairly high. Though the disease may cause some discomfort, it is not very serious.

The CDC doesn’t even recommend testing for herpes! They state, “the risk of shaming and stigmatizing people outweighs the potential benefits. For these reasons, testing everyone for herpes is not recommended at this time.3

Who is at Risk?

Anyone can get oral herpes, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. Herpes is not a reflection on cleanliness or morals. Even babies being kissed by adults are at risk of HSV. There are, however, certain lifestyle choices that could put you at risk of being in the 50% of the population with oral herpes.

You are at a higher risk of contracting oral herpes if any of the following apply to you:

  • You frequently kiss multiple partners
  • You share drinks and/or food
  • You perform unprotected oral sex (HSV-2)


When practicing oral sex, dental dams are recommended. Take precautions to avoid contact with open sores or skin that is experiencing a breakout.

It’s difficult to prevent oral herpes. The best thing you can do is know your status and the status of those that you are in close physical contact with, whether it be through sharing drinks, kissing, or holding hands.

  1. “Cold Sore.” NHS Inform.
  2. “Herpes Fast Facts.” American Sexual Health Association.
  3. “Genital Herpes Screening FAQ.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medically Reviewed by on November 17, 2022

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