Ask Debby Herbenick | Cold sores and penis pumps

TOC's sexpert tackles your most penetrating questions.

Q I am a 45-year-old male and about once a year I get the beginnings of a cold sore on my lips, usually after I eat very spicy food or lots of salty peanuts. I treat it by taking a Valtrex tab immediately when I feel the slightest “tingle,” and almost always the cold sore will not appear. I have never had any kind of sore in my genital area. I believe that this means that I have type 1 oral HSV-1 herpes. I recently spent a fabulous evening with a very nice lady friend, which involved deep French kissing, her performing oral sex on me without protection and then protected sex (i.e., with a condom). Not long after, her roommate called me to say that my lady friend had a cold sore on her lip and that she was convinced that I gave her herpes. I did not have any cold sore for several months prior to this night and have not experienced any signs of a cold sore in the month since. Could I have passed my oral herpes to her? If so, would it have been from the kissing, oral sex, protected sex or some other way? Does it really transfer that quickly? What other ways might my lady friend have caught it? Is there something she can or should do, other than see a doctor to confirm that she has contracted herpes and to secure treatment? I am typically not in an amorous mood when I have a cold sore and would certainly never attempt to kiss someone when I have a cold sore. Is there any other preventive measures that I should take? Is there a specific test for oral herpes? Is there any cure (I heard that one can never be cured, but simply reduce the symptoms)?

A The fact that you get a cold sore on your lips probably does indicate herpes simplex type 1 (which is more common on the mouth). Since you have a prescription for Valtrex, I’m assuming that you have a bona fide diagnosis of herpes, so good for you for talking with your health-care provider about herpes. It is possible that you transmitted herpes to your lady friend. Symptoms usually appear within a week or two after transmission (though some folks who get herpes don’t initially have noticeable symptoms). Since your lady friend woke up with a cold sore on her lip—and you have no reason to believe that you have herpes on your genitals—then it is most likely that you transmitted the virus to her via mouth-to-mouth contact (also known in the nongeeky, less technical world as French kissing). Most of the adult population has type 1 (cold sores on the lips—we call them “cold sores,” but really they’re herpes). About one out of every four or five adults has type 2 (which is similar to type 1, but tends to prefer the genitals). You can transmit herpes even if you’re not having (or about to have) an outbreak. Some estimates that suggest that people with herpes may “shed” the virus (and thus able to transmit it) about 5 percent of the time. Though it can’t be cured, you may be able to reduce the chances of transmitting it to others in the future by taking antiviral medications more regularly—talk with your health-care provider about this or other options. If you want to verify that you have type 1 and not type 2 (though they’re so similar it hardly matters), you can ask your health-care provider about testing. However, testing cannot tell you where you are infected (i.e., it cannot say whether you are also carrying the virus in your genital area). That said, one does not need to be treated for herpes and not everyone advises it. Outbreaks generally become less frequent and less severe with time.

Q I’m interested in doing a safe experiment on myself with a penis pump or extender. I think it is possible to achieve at least small gains in size. I’d like to keep a log, and if you want to track progress let me know.

A Although we don’t have any scientifically recognized safe and effective ways of enlarging the penis—whether it’s by taking herbs or pills; using weights, pumps; or even having surgical procedures—that doesn’t seem to stop thousands or millions (good figures are hard to come by) of men from buying penis-enlargement products or doing penis-enlargement things. And it doesn’t sound like it’s going to stop you, either (unfortunately, in my opinion). Penis pumps are used recreationally as part of sex, so you may indeed be able to work with one in a safe way. If you find it fun, enjoyable or orgasmic, either used alone or with a partner, then cool—have a good time. Many men love them some pump action. However, if you have any discomfort or pain while using a penis pump (or whatever other contraption you decide to “experiment” with), please check in with a health-care provider right away. You don’t want to risk damaging your penis in a quest for that extra quarter of an inch that your partner will probably never notice anyway.

Q I keep coming to my mom with complaints about my sex life (or lack of sex life), and her only advice is to tell me to get laid. I’m a bit sore about being the perpetually single woman when my adult sisters are in serious relationships and I never seem to get any. Even in a good social atmosphere where opportunities might present themselves, I never seem to get any practice. What gives? I’m good looking and I flirt a lot; this is seriously disappointing.

A Rather than being sore about a lack of sex, I’d be sore about only getting the advice to go out and “get laid.” This isn’t Superbad, it’s your life. Telling someone to go out and get laid is like telling someone to go out and find whatever she can get…and maybe to bring home an infection while she’s at it. I guess the first thing I’d encourage you to ask yourself is whether you’re in need of (1) orgasms/sexual release, (2) human contact, (3) sex with another human being or (4) someone to date and maybe with whom you can have a relationship. If all you need are orgasms or sexual pleasure/release, use your hand or a trusty vibrator (the silver bullet is a great beginners’ toy and is available at most adult bookstores and websites) and go for gold. Sometimes when people think they need sex, they are often just starved for touch—not sexual touching, just plain touching. If you don’t have people you can be physically close with (i.e., touch, kiss, hug or cuddle), try volunteering at an animal shelter or going in for weekly massage appointments. Really, touch is that important. If it’s not just touch you need, but sexual touch (door No. 3), then ask your friends about your flirting skills. Are you trying too hard to flirt? Eye contact is important to signal interest, but staring is creepy. Similarly, cute clothes are flirtatious, but superlow or tight tops can look desperate. The key is to garner interest—not to show all of your goods and leave no room for wondering. If it’s that you really want to date, not just have sex, then maybe trying to go out and get laid won’t meet your goals. Instead opt for activities where you can make new friends, such as taking classes, joining coed sports leagues, or borrowing a friend’s dog and taking it on walks to meet other cute dog owners (yes, it really is that easy to meet people—curious, sniffing and even growling dogs make the connections for you).

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