I’ve been getting cold sores all my life, and I recently heard someone refer to them as “herpes.” Isn’t that an STI? I’ve never even had sex!

Great question! There are a lot of misconceptions and fear around herpes, and it’s really important to separate the myth from the fact. It IS true that cold sores are caused by the herpes virus. Oral herpes, or HSV-1, is spread through contact like kissing and sharing drinking glasses, and most people who have it contract it during childhood. HSV-2, which causes genital herpes, is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact. The virus is incredibly common–75-80 percent of Americans carry at least one type. Both types of the herpes virus, once contracted, stay in the body and cause outbreaks, which usually take the form of an uncomfortable blister or rash, at varying intervals.

Cold sores are not generally thought of as an STI, but it is possible for HSV-1 to be transmitted to the genitals through oral sex. Regarding HSV-2, protecting yourself against STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact can be challenging, because condoms don’t fully cover the infected area. Although it’s possible for the virus to spread when no symptoms are visible, avoiding contact during an active outbreak can reduce the risk of passing it to someone else. There are also medications available that can reduce both the duration and frequency of outbreaks, as well as the chance of transmission.

Most people occasionally get cold sores, and they are certainly nothing to worry about! Unlike some infections which have long-term ramifications for your health, neither type of the herpes virus causes lasting damage to your body beyond the discomfort of an outbreak.  However, there is a ton of stigma around genital herpes, and it’s important to do some critical thinking about why two very similar viruses are thought of so differently just because of where they show up on the body.

If you’ve never had sex, you’re likely at low risk for STIs, but it never hurts to talk to your medical provider about your specific history and concerns. Above all, remember that knowledge is power–being aware of your STI status is important, but no matter what the results, you’re still the same person.