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Heather Corinna replies:
Do coldsores mean that you have Herpes? My friend told me that coldsores were a sign of an STI. I had my first coldsore when I was 9 years old and I was definately not sexually active. I haven't had one since but I am afraid that I might be carrying Herpes. I know lots of people who get coldsores on a regular basis and I just don't understand how all these people could have Herpes. I know that it is very contagious. Does having this mean that you can never have sex? Can you clarify for me? Thanks a bunch!
Yes, coldsores are the oral herpes virus, or HSV-I. Your friend has it right.
Understand that most people do not contract oral herpes sexually, but through casual contact, and the majority of people with oral herpes contract it in childhood, just by doing things like sharing glasses with family members who also have oral herpes, or getting a smooch on the lips from your Aunt Myrtle who just spaced out being careful when she was about to get a sore, or didn't know she should be. This is the big why in terms of why and how so many people have oral herpes: it's very contagious, and it's very easy to contract through daily things a lot of people just don't even think about. In high school, I thought myself very continental and made a habit of kissing friends on the cheek or near the mouth as a routine greeting (As in, "Hello, darlings! Kisskiss!"): lo and behold, when I got mono, before I even knew I'd had it, I gave it to very nearly my entire junior class (mind, my class was only 22 people, but still). If I had had oral herpes, I could have given it to everyone the same way, just through friendly, nonsexual affection.
Having oral herpes doesn't mean you can never have sex, or that you can never make out with someone. You just have to be mindful and careful. If you're about to get a sore -- you can usually feel a tingling sensation when you are, around where it will be -- or if you have an active sore, those are the times you'll want to avoid direct mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-genital contact with someone else. With oral sex and oral herpes, it's safest to use latex barriers (like condoms) even when sores are inactive, just because while the virus is less likely to be transmitted then, it still may be transmitted then. Of course, with any new partners it's always smartest to use latex barriers for oral sex regardless.
Latex barriers and condoms don't work as well with a virus like herpes as they do with STIs transmitted through fluids, but they still drastically reduce the chance of transmission. Because oral herpes can be transmitted from mouth to genitals, you do also want to make sure that you're not touching your own herpes sores then touching your own genitals or someone else's.
You can also talk to your doctor to see if a herpes suppression medication is right for you: they're safe medications which reduce the frequency of outbreaks. It'd be smart to talk to your doc anyway, just to get the scoop on herpes.
Here's more information for you on the site about Herpes and safer sex: