Kissing can be awkward AF—but, aside from beard burn or the common cold, it’s pretty safe, right?
Not exactly. A peck on the mouth (or a full-blown, let-me-shove-my-tongue-down-your-throat makeout session) can actually transmit a couple different types of STDs [insert cringing emoji here]: herpes simplex virus (HSV) 1 and 2 and syphilis, says Teena Chopra, M.D., corporate medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Detroit Medical Centre and Wayne State University.
Talk about a mood killer. Luckily, you don’t have to swear off kissing forever—buuut, it’s a good idea to just be aware of what can be spread through spit-swapping. Here’s what you need to know about the two STDs you can get through kissing.
What to know about herpes and kissing:
Herpes simplex virus (HSV 1 and 2) infections are one of the most common STDs and, once contracted, they last a lifetime, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
“Once a person has been infected, the virus can remain dormant (latent) for years before periodically reactivating to cause recurrent disease,” the website notes. Which is why it’s also important to note: People who don’t know they have herpes can still spread herpes, per the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whereas HSV-1 is responsible for oral herpes, HSV-2 is what causes genital herpes. However, oral herpes can be spread from the mouth to the genitals as a result of oral sex, which is how some cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-1, according to the CDC. And, yes, the reverse is also true: Genital herpes can be passed from one person’s genitals to another person’s mouth, causing oral herpes.
If you’re concerned about herpes (and you know your partner has it), ask them to be diligent about symptoms that signal an outbreak is coming (you’re more likely to contract the virus during a herpes flare). Burning, itching, and/or tingling feelings are all signs that sores are about to appear, according to Planned Parenthood.
You might also want to encourage your partner to be upfront by assuring them that herpes is nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, it’s ridiculously common—more than half of Americans have oral herpes, and about one out of six Americans has genital herpes, according to Planned Parenthood.
Another prevention method: If your partner has herpes, then they can chat with their doctor about taking medication that can lower their chances of spreading the virus.
So, what about syphilis?
Syphilis occurs in four stages, according to the CDC, with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage.
Primary syphilis will be evident because a person will generally have sores, typically around the genitals and/or mouth, called chancres, per the CDC. Secondary syphilis includes a skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever, but there are no signs or symptoms during the third or latent stage of the STD.
The four stage of syphilis however, known as tertiary syphilis, can be linked to severe medical problems. Left untreated, syphilis can affect the heart, brain, and other organs of the body, according to the CDC.
The infection can be passed by direct contact with a sore during the first three stages, through vaginal, anal, or oral sex—and, yes, even through kissing.
Chopra says the only way to fully avoid syphilis is to avoid sex or kissing completely, but uh, since that’s not totally practical, there are ways to reduce your risk.
Straight-up asking new partners whether or not they have an STD (or asking them to get tested if they don’t know) is a good practice, as is nixing the kissing when you see visible sores, says Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
And while you’re at it, make sure to get yourself tested too—doctors won’t typically test you for herpes unless you’re showing symptoms like sores, according to Planned Parenthood, but you can still get tested for syphilis whether you’re showing signs or not.