Most of the time, people associate sexually transmitted infections with activities like vaginal sex, oral sex, and anal sex.
In particular, can you get herpes from kissing?
The answer is more than a simple “yes” because there are different types of herpes.
To help you understand the connection between herpes and kissing, in this article, I’ll explain the difference between HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Then I’ll discuss how herpes spreads and how to prevent herpes. Finally, I’ll cover the common symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment for herpes.
The Difference Between HSV-1 & HSV-2
Confusingly, oral herpes can sometimes cause genital sores, and genital herpes can sometimes cause cold sores around the mouth.
The two viruses are very similar and highly contagious.
However, HSV-1 is much more common, affects more people, and is spread more easily via both sexual and non-sexual contact.
HSV-1 affects around 67% of the worldwide population under age 50.
HSV-2 only affects 13% of the population in the same age range.
How Does Herpes Spread?
HSV-2 spreads almost exclusively via sexual contact.
But HSV-1 can spread from non-sexual contact, including from parent to child during birth.
Herpes is spread via:
- Direct contact with sores
- Direct contact with saliva from an infected person
- Direct contact with other body fluids from an infected person
Herpes through indirect contact
Less commonly, it is possible to contract herpes without skin contact.
This could involve sharing personal products that touch the sores or saliva of an infected person, like razors, washcloths, or other facial care products.
It could also involve sharing cups or utensils.
However, these are not primary ways that herpes spreads.
Anyone with an active cold sore or herpes blister should avoid allowing anyone else to come into contact with the sores, and should not kiss or share utensils or other objects that have saliva on them until the outbreak is over.
How Does Kissing Transmit HSV?
During herpes outbreaks, blisters or sores may form around the mouth, chin, cheeks, genitals, anus, or inner thighs.
These blisters contain liquid that can spread the virus.
The virus is also present in the saliva of someone with an active infection, even if that person has no symptoms.
Any type of kissing can allow for saliva exchange, which can transmit the herpes virus.
Kissing and close face contact can also allow for direct contact with cold sores or herpes blisters.
Does the type of kiss matter?
While HSV-2 is less likely to spread via contact outside of sexual encounters, any type of kiss can provide enough close contact to transmit HSV-1.
The virus may be present outside or around a person’s mouth or in their saliva if they have active cold sores.
For this reason, both open-mouth and closed-mouth kissing may spread HSV-1.
This does not mean that kissing is unsafe.
Rather, discuss your sexual history and health history with any and all sexual partners.
And if you have signs of an active herpes outbreak, avoid kissing or sexual contact with anyone until the sores fully heal. (Most cold sores or herpes blisters take 1-2 weeks to heal.)
How to Prevent Transmission
Unless you are fully celibate, it is not possible to avoid all risk of contracting herpes simplex virus or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
However, some basic prevention strategies may reduce your risk:
- Do not kiss or have sexual contact with anyone who has an active herpes blister or cold sore outbreak. If you have one, avoid sexual contact or kissing with anyone until it has fully healed.
- Use barrier methods (male or female condoms, dental dams, etc) for all types of sexual contact.
- Be honest with your sexual partners about your history and have open conversations about theirs. This can help you both make informed decisions that prioritize your health, safety, and sexual enjoyment.
- Limit sexual partners. As you increase the number of people you are sexually active with, you increase the potential for exposure to any STIs, including herpes.
Symptoms of Herpes
Herpes simplex may cause no symptoms.
It may also cause symptoms during the initial infection but remain dormant for the rest of a person’s life.
Other people may experience recurring outbreaks of herpes simplex type 1 or 2.
Symptoms of a herpes outbreak may include:
- Sores that form in or around the mouth, nose, chin, cheeks, eyes, genitals, anus, or inner thighs
- Tingling, itching, or burning sensations 1-3 days before sores appear
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Body aches
Diagnosis & Treatment
If someone has an active outbreak, herpes simplex can be diagnosed from a physical exam or by collecting a small fluid sample by swabbing a cold sore or herpes blister.
Without an outbreak, a medical provider can run blood tests to determine if a person has antibodies for herpes simplex type 1 or 2.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 do not always require treatment.
Antiviral medications may be prescribed for people with frequent outbreaks or who have compromised immune systems and are at higher risk for complications.
When used at the first sign of a cold sore, over-the-counter medications like topical creams can prevent outbreaks.
These medications can also shorten the duration of an active outbreak.
Your medical provider can advise which products or remedies are best for you.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a clinician in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Genital Herpes. (2019).
Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet. (2021).
Herpes - Oral. (2022).
Herpes Simplex Type 1. (2021).
Herpes Simplex Virus. (2022).