Cold sores

Reviewed by Frank Cockerill, MD, July 21, 2017

Cold sores are caused by the oral herpes or herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). There are two types of herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both virus types can cause sores around the mouth (oral herpes or herpes labialis) and on the genitals (genital herpes or herpes genitalis).

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What causes cold sores?

Cold sores are very common and can be transmitted by close person to person contact, which does not have to be sexual contact. Most cold sores are caused by herpes simplex virus-type 1, but rarely caused by herpes simplex virus-type 2, which is associated with genital lesions.

Getting tested regularly is the best way to stay up-to-date on your sexual health. If you are having unprotected sex or sex with a new partner, STD testing may be the right decision for you.

There is not a cure for herpes type 1 or herpes type 2. Antiviral medications can help reduce symptoms and prevent the spread of herpes type 1 & 2 but it is not a 100% guarantee. By taking prescribed medications, using condoms and notifying partners, patients who test positive for herpes type 1 & 2 can help reduce the risk of infecting others while being sexually active.

Untreated STDs can cause long term health problems for patients, so it’s important to get tested if you believe you’re at risk.

Before you can discuss treatment options with a doctor, you need to get tested.

How are cold sores spread?

Cold sores spread from person to person by close contact, such as kissing. They're caused by a herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) closely related to the one that causes genital herpes (HSV-2). Both of these viruses can affect your mouth or genitals and can be spread by oral sex. Cold sores are contagious even if you don't see the sores.

Is there a cure for cold sores?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for an HSV infection. Blisters may return from time to time; but antiviral medication can be used to help the sores and blisters heal faster. Medication can also reduce how often they return.

Getting tested can be a scary experience. But it’s the best and only way to know what your STD status is with confidence. It’s always smart to be proactive if you feel something is wrong.

Can you get lip blisters from stress?

While it is possible to get a lip blister from being overstressed, it is not a guarantee that you will. Many different types of lip blisters can occur around a someone’s mouth, lips, and face.

Cold sores and canker sores

Depending on what causes it, cold sores can heal within a week or two on their own. But that’s not always the case. It’s important to understand what they look like so you can determine how to treat it.

One of the most common types of mouth lesions is called a canker sore. They are small, round, shallow ulcers that develop around the mouth or the base of the gums.

Canker sores are commonly confused with cold sores. Canker sores are not contagious and don’t appear on the surface of the skin, how a cold sore might. Canker sores reside mainly inside the mouth. Canker sores also are able to heal on their own after a few weeks time.

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