Can You Get Genital Herpes From a Cold Sore?

Can You Get Genital Herpes From a Cold Sore?
Kristin Hall, FNP
Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 7/23/2019

A common question people have about the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses are, "Can you get genital herpes from a cold sore?" Although most cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-2, it is also possible for HSV-1, the form of herpes that typically causes cold sores on the mouth and lips, to transfer to the genitals through direct contact.

This means that if you had oral sex with a person infected with HSV-1, there’s a risk of the virus infecting you and causing genital herpes.

In this guide, we’ll explain HSV-1 transmission works, and how it can be transmitted from the mouth (an oral infection) to the male or female genitals (a genital herpes infection), along with techniques you can use to reduce the risk of receiving or transmitting the virus.

Genital Herpes vs. Cold Sores: What’s the Difference?

Cold sores and genital herpes are both caused by the herpes simplex virus. While most people with cold sores have HSV-1 and most people with genital herpes have HSV-2, it’s also possible for HSV-1 to infect the genitals. HSV-1 genital herpes is less common than HSV-1 oral, but it's still 100% possible. 

In short, almost all cases of oral herpes are caused by HSV-1. However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can infect the genitals, with HSV-1 making up an increasing number of genital herpes infections.

This means that if someone with HSV-1 gives you oral sex, there’s a risk of the virus making its way from their saliva into your genitals, causing an infection.

HSV-1 is extremely common. According to the World Health Organization, approximately two in every three people aged 15-49 are infected with the virus. Having HSV-1 can result in obvious, visible symptoms like cold sores, but it can also be completely asymptomatic.

This means that many people with HSV-1 are still infected, but exhibit no symptoms. In short, it’s possible to get HSV-1 genital herpes after receiving oral sex from someone with a visible cold sore and from someone without any visible HSV-1 symptoms.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Herpes From Oral Sex

Herpes is one of the easiest viruses to spread through sexual contact, meaning there’s only so much you can do to keep yourself safe.

If your partner has a visible cold sore and you’re concerned about the risk of HSV-1, you could ask them to take a herpes test. A variety of herpes tests are available, many of which deliver an accurate diagnosis within 24 hours.

If your partner has HSV-1 and you’re concerned about genital herpes, the most effective way to prevent infection is to avoid having sex, particularly oral sex.

Beyond abstinence, effective ways to reduce your risk of catching genital herpes from a sexual partner include wearing a condom, which will provide some level of protection against contact, and using a dental dam in the event that you and your partner have oral sex.

It’s also best to avoid all sexual contact in the event that your partner has a visible cold sore, as this often means the virus is as its most contagious stage. Our guide to having sex with herpes goes through the best practices you can use to still have a fulfilling sex life and intimate relationship with your partner.

Finally, you can talk to your partner about using suppressive antiviral medication. Modern drugs such as valacyclovir not only treat the symptoms of herpes, but when used on a daily basis, they can also reduce the risk of your partner transmitting the virus to you during sexual activity.

Our complete guide to having sex when you have herpes contains more information about the best ways to reduce your exposure to or risk of transmitting the virus.

Learn More About Treating Herpes

Herpes is an extremely common virus, affecting about two in every three people under the age of 50 as HSV-1 and one in nine people as HSV-2. Luckily, a variety of treatments are available for herpes, allowing people with genital and oral herpes to live normal, fulfilling lives.

Interested in learning more about herpes treatments? Our Valacyclovir 101 guide covers one of the most widely used pharmaceutical treatments for herpes, with specific information on how it can be used to reduce transmission risk and control the symptoms of a herpes outbreak.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.