The Sex Files

Every other week, Body, Mind and Soul will feature a "quickie" with the Sexual Health Resource Centre.

"What do you Mean, Oral Sex Isn't Safe…?"

The stigma attached to genital herpes tends to pale in comparison to the more serious and well-known HIV and AIDS but few know that its effects can be just as disabling. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that sexually active people should know of and dread.

The virus which causes herpes is called the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and is transmitted through direct intimate contact. The virus lives in the nerve cells of an infected person for the rest of their life; there is no cure. A large number of the population carries HSV type 1, which is what causes cold sores around the mouth. The genital form of herpes is usually caused by HSV type 2, but the Montreal Health Press (1999) reports that in actuality about 20 percent of cases are caused by HSV 1 transmitted during oral-genital sex.

The frightening ease with which oral herpes (cold sores) can be spread to the genital area is not very well known by most students. According to Dr. John Geddes at Student Health, Counselling and Disability Services, the very nature of oral-genital sexual activity means that the virus can be spread to a larger area, leading to a more serious and painful outbreak of sores. This is especially true for women, where oral sex contact covers a large part of the genital and upper thigh area.

A typical test for STIs at Student Health Services does not include a test for HSV. And since herpes outbreaks are not always visible this increases the urgency for more careful sexual activity. If you find a blister-like sore on or around your genital area, see your doctor. The use of a condom during intercourse decreases the chance of contracting genital herpes, but does not offer full protection. Oral sex can be made safer for both males and females with the use of condoms and dental dams.

On a final note, if you or your partner have an outbreak of cold sores around the mouth, it is wise to practice caution when traveling south.

Monika Rahman is the Assistant Director of the Sexual Health Resource Centre.

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