Can Cold Sores Cause Herpes? Everything You Need To Know
Right now, 50 to 80% of adults in the U.S. have a cold sore, and about 90% will have had one by age 50. But did you know a cold sore is actually a form of oral herpes?
The mere mention of the word herpes might make you panic, but this common condition isn’t as scary as you might think. There’s a big difference between oral herpes on the lips and genital herpes. Regardless, both kinds are still stigmatized.
If you’re among that 50–80% of adults, you might be wondering, can a cold sore on the lip cause genital herpes? Let’s explore the difference between cold sores and genital herpes and how to protect yourself from herpes transmission.
Cold Sores vs. Genital Herpes
Herpes, or the herpes simplex virus, is fairly common. There are two main types: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
Infections caused by HSV-1 are often categorized as oral herpes, or cold sores that forms on your lips, while infections caused by HSV-2 are often categorized as genital herpes. However, both of these infections remain asymptomatic most of the time, or present with symptoms so mild they go unnoticed. You could have either oral herpes or genital herpes and not even know!
HSV-1 vs. HSV-2
So, what are the differences between HSV-1 and HSV-2?
The herpes simplex virus type 1 spreads through direct contact with the skin, such as the skin on and around the lips. After HSV-1 enters the body, it spreads to trigger cold sores on the lips. It is highly contagious, especially in the presence of oozing blisters.
HSV-1 remains dormant in nerve cells after an initial outbreak, where it can stay for weeks, months, or even years until a trigger reactivates it. Once you’ve had an outbreak, it’s hard to predict exactly when and how another outbreak will occur.
The herpes simplex virus type 2, most commonly known for causing genital herpes, is a sexually transmitted infection with no known cure. The most common sign of genital herpes is the development of blisters around the genital area. Herpes blisters are often itchy and painful, and can be transmitted from person to person during sexual contact.
How to Identify a Cold Sore
A cold sore is a fluid-filled, blister-like lesion on your lips or around the outside of your mouth, often preceded by a tingling or burning sensation.
A helpful way to identify a cold sore is to determine what it is not. That is to say, there are multiple conditions that mimic the symptoms of a cold sore on the lip, but that are something else entirely.
Here are the most common conditions that you might mistake for cold sores:
- Gingivostomatitis: This mouth infection causes sores to form on the gums and inside the lips, not on the outside of the mouth.
- Angular cheilitis: Irritated patches form at the corners of the mouth where the lips meet, but they never become fluid-filled blisters.
- Canker sore: Lesions form on the inside of the mouth only and never cause a blister or scab.
- Pimple: A pimple near the lip may be red, irritated, or filled with white pus, but if left alone it will not burst or scab over.
- Ingrown hair: While this can cause irritation or redness, it typically looks like a pimple and is much smaller than a cold sore.
- Folate deficiency: The blisters that form from this condition occur inside your mouth and around the gums, not on the outside of the mouth and around the lips.
- Chapped lips: Dry, chapped lips may appear like the blister stage of a cold sore but won’t result in a fluid-filled lesion.
- Sunburn: Sunburn on the lips may cause blisters, but they don’t burn, tingle, or itch like cold sores. They will also likely be smaller and white in color.
Once you eliminate these possible conditions, you can safely assume you’re dealing with a cold sore.
Can a Cold Sore on the Lip Cause Genital Herpes?
Now that you understand the two types of herpes and how to identify a cold sore, we can tackle the big question on your mind — can a cold sore on the lip cause genital herpes?
The answer is a resounding yes. The same herpes virus that can lead to the development of a cold sore on the lip can cause genital herpes through oral-to-genital contact.
In the past, experts believed HSV-1 caused cold sores only. Around the turn of this century, however, medical professionals noticed an uptick in genital herpes outbreaks caused by HSV-1, not HSV-2. Studies showed as many as one-third to 60% of new cases of genital herpes were caused by HSV-1.
It’s important to note that oral herpes can cause genital herpes even if there is no cold sore present on the lips. While HSV-1 can remain asymptomatic, it can still spread to others through a phenomenon called asymptomatic shedding.
A person can contract genital herpes from someone with oral herpes in two ways:
- Direct contact between their genitals and an infected person’s lips
- Indirect contact from touching an infected person’s lips and then touching the genitals
The risk of a cold sore causing genital herpes depends on a number of factors. Some are within your control, and some aren’t:
- The length of time a person has been infected with the herpes virus
- Whether you’re a man or a woman, as women are more likely to be infected as a result of physical contact with a partner
- How frequently you use condoms during any type of sex
- Whether you take an antiviral medication
- Whether you use a dental dam
How to Keep Cold Sores From Causing Genital Herpes
Couples should refrain from intimate contact whenever cold sores are present, since active cold sores increase the likelihood of HSV-1 transmission.
In addition to refraining from intimacy, the following practices can help prevent HSV-1 from spreading to your partner and causing genital herpes.
Follow General Hygiene Best Practices
Sometimes the simplest acts are the most powerful. Implement these general hygiene best practices to create a safe environment for you and your partner:
- Keep the infected area clean and dry.
- Avoid touching your sores.
- Wash your hands immediately after any and all possible contact with your sores.
- DON’T pick at your sores.
- DON’T make choices you know can trigger an outbreak.
Take Antiviral Medications
You and/or your partner can take an antiviral medication to fight the herpes virus and help prevent transmission. Your doctor can prescribe one of several available antiviral medications:
Acyclovir (Zovirax) is a prescription medication used to speed up the healing of sores caused by both first-time and repeat outbreaks of genital herpes. It works by slowing or stopping the spread of the herpes virus within the body.
Valacyclovir (Valtrex) is another antiviral prescription drug used to treat genital herpes. Taken twice a day for five days, Valtrex may decrease pain and itching and help sores heal faster. In some cases, this antiviral can also prevent new sores from forming.
Use a Dental Dam
A dental dam is a thin, flexible piece of latex that prevents direct oral contact during oral sex. If you’re wondering how to protect your partner from herpes, a dental dam offers an effective way to stop the spread of HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Dental dams work like a condom for the mouth, though they’re not nearly as well-known or easy to find. You may need to order a dental dam online if one isn’t available at your local drugstore. They’re available in a range of shapes, sizes, and even flavors.
How to Prevent Herpes Outbreaks
The herpes virus spreads more easily when sores are present, either on the lips or the genitals. Learning the best ways to prevent outbreaks can help you reduce the risk of transmission.
In addition to careful hygiene habits, strategic preventative measures can stop cold sores before they start. These tips will help you keep the herpes virus dormant, preventing cold sores from forming on your skin.
Choose the Right Foods and Supplements
You can’t go wrong by eating healthy and taking supplements. Clinical and anecdotal evidence show these choices in particular can help prevent cold sore outbreaks:
Get Tested for Herpes
Though herpes has a reputation of causing unpleasant and embarrassing symptoms, having either type of herpes without symptoms is surprisingly common, meaning you should test for herpes often.
Regular testing is an important part of sexual healthcare. As many as 90% of people infected with herpes are unaware they have the virus because they’ve never experienced an outbreak.
Asymptomatic shedding is responsible for the spread of herpes when no symptoms are present. Even in the absence of visible sores, the herpes virus can “shed” via the skin or bodily fluids to infect others.
This is why it’s so important to monitor your health by getting tested. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends testing if you’re experiencing symptoms that could be related to herpes, or if you recently came into sexual contact with a new partner who has or may have herpes.
There are a few different ways to test for and diagnose herpes:
- Tissue or herpes sore sample
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to test for the presence of herpes DNA
- Blood test to detect the presence of HSV antibodies
The Best Ways to Heal Herpes Outbreaks Faster
Antiviral medication isn’t the only way to alleviate herpes outbreaks on the lips and genitals. Research shows that high-powered light treatment can reduce pain and help manage herpes outbreaks effectively.
When used immediately at the first signs of an emerging outbreak, light therapy can stop your cold sore or genital herpes outbreak from fully forming. Clinical data conclusively shows that high-powered light treatment reduces healing time by several days and extends the time before the next recurrence from three weeks to 37.5 weeks!
The clinically backed light therapy devices manufactured by the Luminance RED are designed to manage sores caused by both HSV-1 and HSV-2. They produce wavelengths of medically optimized, pain-free light to shine directly onto sores. The regular use of light therapy devices like this one not only shortens the healing time of active herpes outbreaks, but can also prevent future outbreaks altogether!
Frequently Asked Questions: How to Protect Yourself
It’s estimated that one in six people in the United States have contracted genital herpes from either HSV-1 or HSV-2. Now that you know a cold sore on the lip can cause genital herpes, it’s important to know how to protect yourself. Here’s a quick roundup of common questions.
Is there a guaranteed way to avoid exposure?
The most effective way to avoid contracting genital herpes is to abstain from sexual contact, or to only have sexual contact with a partner who does not have a herpes infection and who only has sexual contact with you. Since we now know that cold sores can cause genital herpes, this includes abstaining from contact with another person’s lips.
What lowers your risk?
If you’re not interested in abstaining from intimate contact with others, there are ways to lower your risk factors. Practice safe sex by using either male or female condoms. This is not a foolproof method, as the skin around the condom can still become infected, but it will lower your risk. Avoid sexual contact with someone who has an active outbreak.
What if your partner is infected?
Avoid sexual contact when your partner is experiencing an active outbreak. Talk to your doctor about antiviral drugs that can reduce your chance of contracting herpes from your partner.
Can I infect myself with genital herpes from a cold sore?
Just like you can contract genital herpes after coming into contact with someone else’s lips, you can theoretically infect yourself. If you have a cold sore, avoid touching your face and then your genitals without thoroughly washing your hands. Similarly, you can contract oral herpes from contact between your mouth and an infected person’s genitals.
Talk to your doctor right away if you believe you’ve been exposed to the herpes virus. A simple medical test can let you know if you’ve been infected.