What are cold sores vs. herpes? 

Cold sores are small blisters that appear on the lips and face. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). Genital herpes is caused by the HSV-2 virus and it is spread by sexual contact. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause sores on the mouth and genitals.
Cold sores are small blisters that appear on the lips and face. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). Genital herpes is caused by the HSV-2 virus and it is spread by sexual contact. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause sores on the mouth and genitals.

Cold sores

Cold sores are small and sometimes painful blisters that occur around your lips and face. These sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). 

Herpes

Cold sores are caused by a strain of the herpes virus. However, while cold sores are part of the herpes virus, herpes is not limited to cold sores. There are multiple strains of herpes. 

Generally speaking, genital herpes is caused by HSV-2 and is spread by sexual contact. Even though HSV-1 is credited to cold sores around the mouth and HSV-2 is credited to genital sores, both viruses can cause sores in either location on your body.

Signs and symptoms of a cold sore vs. herpes

Cold sores

Cold sores are also called oral herpes because the virus is located in and around the mouth. You may have one or a group of blisters located on your face including:

  • Lips
  • Gums
  • Roof of mouth
  • Tongue
  • Nose

Cold sores last 7-10 days and can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. They may tingle, burn, leak liquid, and be painful.

Herpes

In addition to displaying as cold sores, herpes can also cause similar sores on your genitals. The sores may also look like blisters and occur one at a time or in a cluster, like cold sores. Outbreaks of herpes happen several times per year and decrease with time. 

What causes a cold sore vs. herpes?

Herpes is a highly contagious virus. Cold sores are caused by a strain of the herpes virus, and genital herpes is caused by a different strain of the herpes virus. 

Since both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause cold sores and genital herpes, the virus can be spread via kissing or any sexual contact. Having vaginal, anal, or oral sex spreads genital herpes from a person who has active sores.

The herpes virus cannot spread by swimming pools, toilet seats, towels, soap, or bedding. It can spread through:

  • Saliva – if cold sores are present
  • Genital secretions – if genital herpes is present
  • Oral sex – if you have cold sores they can spread to another person’s genitals. If you have genital herpes it can spread to another person’s mouth.

It is important to know that you can get herpes from a sex partner without a visible sore, or someone who doesn’t even realize they are infected with the virus.


 

How are cold sores and herpes diagnosed?

In most cases, your doctor can diagnose oral or genital herpes by the location and appearance of the sores. However, cold sores may look similar to other conditions like canker sores, acne, or an allergic reaction. Your doctor may swab an open sore to complete a virus culture. Additionally, they will use a blood test to look for traces of the herpes virus in your system. 

When should I see my doctor about cold sores or herpes?

If you think you have oral or genital herpes, it's important to see your doctor when:

  • You have another condition that weakens your immune system, making you susceptible to worse symptoms
  • The sores don't heal within 7 to 10 days
  • Your cold sores appear more than a few times a year
  • Your sores show signs of a bacterial infection, including redness, swelling, or you have a fever

Treatments for cold sores vs. herpes

Cold sores and genital herpes outbreaks normally go away 7 to 10 days after they appear. There is no cure for the virus, but prescription medicines and creams can shorten the length of your outbreak and make the sores less painful.

Cold sores

Cold sores can be treated with topical products like ointments, lip balms, and sunscreen. These help to slow the spread of the virus, relieve your symptoms, and improve the appearance of your sores. If your sores are painful, take an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Lip balms and sunscreens are also considered preventative methods to keep your skin healthy and avoid breakouts. Similarly, try to avoid acidic foods and skin products that may irritate the sores. 

Herpes

For genital herpes, your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication to prevent or shorten outbreaks. Taking an antiviral medication daily for herpes reduces the chance of spreading the disease to sex partners.


 

What gets rid of cold sores fast?

Cold sores are painful, unsightly sores that usually pop up around your mouth. They are caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1).  The sores aren’t dangerous but they are uncomfortable. You can also pass them to other people easily. 

Learn more about cold sores and how to get rid of them fast.

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Cold sores main symptoms

Cold sores are very common. They are caused by a virus that moves from person to person by touch. You don’t need to be showing symptoms to transmit the virus.

The sores themselves are the main symptom, though some people say they feel a tingling sensation before the sores appear.

The main signs of the virus that causes colds sores include:

  • Mouth sores: HSV-1 causes painful sores around the mouth. They look like blisters at first. After a while, they burst and crust over. It can take a week to 10 days for the sores to clear up.
  • Other sores: You can get sores that are like cold sores anywhere on your body. Like the sores on the mouth, they start as painful blisters then dry up and heal over time. 
  • Flu-like symptoms: During a cold sore outbreak, you might feel symptoms similar to a flu, such as fevertiredness, or body aches 

Cold sores main causes

Most cold sores are due to HSV-1, though HSV-2 causes some sores. The HSV-2 virus is the virus that causes genital herpes. 

The virus first affects your skin then moves to your nerve cells. It never leaves your body, but your immune system can suppress it most of the time so that you don’t have constant sores. 

You may get cold sores every once in a while for your whole life or you may only ever get one. The virus can stay dormant so that you never get another cold sore after the first outbreak. 

If you do get outbreaks again, they may be related to other things that are going on in your life. Outbreaks can be triggered by other illnesses, sun exposure, menstrual periods, or stress.

Usually, the first outbreak of cold sores is the worst one. If you get them again, the cold sores won’t be as severe. You may feel a tingling in the spot where a sore is about to appear so you can begin treating it before it shows up.

Who can get cold sores?

Anyone can get cold sores, though people with weakened immune systems can be more susceptible to the virus that leads to cold sores. Many people get HSV-1 as babies or children from touching an adult who already has the virus.

Sexual contact is another common way of contracting herpes. Since the same virus that causes cold sores can cause sores in the genital area, you can get it from oral sex.

Diagnosis for cold sores

If you have an outbreak of sores, your doctor can examine them to make sure the HSV-1 actually causes them. They may take a swab from the sore to test it for the presence of the virus.

If you don’t have an outbreak at the time of your appointment, your doctor can order blood tests to diagnose herpes.

Treatments for cold sores 

The virus that causes cold sores lives in your body for your entire life. There is no cure for it, though some medicines can reduce the likelihood of getting cold sores in the future {Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Cold Sores.”}. Some medicines can relieve the symptoms when you get cold sores. 

Medications

If cold sores are a serious problem for you, you can talk to your doctor about a prescription. Several prescription antiviral medicines can decrease the severity and frequency of outbreaks. They also can help prevent you from spreading the virus to other people.

The medications are:

Home care 

Some over-the-counter cold sore remedies help with symptoms and make the sore heal faster.

Try these methods for easing discomfort:

  1. Antiviral creams: Antiviral cold sore creams are available without a prescription. Products that contain docosanol or benzyl alcohol are helpful
  2. Ice: Sucking ice chips or using a cold compress can reduce pain
  3. Pain relievers: Topical pain relievers containing benzocaine, lidocaine, or dibucaine can reduce pain from sores. Over-the-counter pain medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen might also help

Avoid touching cold sores. Touching them, then touching other parts of your body or other people, can transfer the virus. If you do touch your cold sores, wash your hands thoroughly afterward. 

Alternative therapies 

Some natural remedies may make cold sores feel better fast. Ask your doctor if any of these remedies might be helpful for you: 

  • Tea tree oil: Tea tree oil is commonly used for injuries and sores
  • Aloe vera gel: Aloe gels are used for sunburn and may relieve cold sore pain as well
  • Lysine: This is a supplement that you can get in a cream or capsule form. It’s a protein that helps build collagen in the skin
  • Kanuka honey: Bees in New Zealand produce medical-grade kanuka honey. Research shows it helps with cold sores {BMJ Open: “Kanuka honey versus aciclovir for the topical treatment of herpes simplex labialis: a randomised controlled trial.”}.

Possible side effects and complications

Cold sores are highly infectious. You can pass the virus that causes them to other people through skin contact. If you have cold sores or sores related to herpes anywhere on your body, avoid skin contact with others if there is a chance they may touch your sores. This includes kissing, sexual activity, and sharing cups or eating utensils.

The most significant concern with cold sores is if they are on your genitals during pregnancy. You can pass the virus to your baby, which can cause serious problems. Speak with your doctor if you or your partner have a history of cold sores.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/14/2022
References
SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet."

Harvard Medical School: "Cold sores."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Cold Sores (HSV-1)."

Johns Hopkins Hopkins Medicine: "Genital Herpes."

Kids Health: "Can you get genital herpes from a cold sore?"

Penn Medicine: "Cold sores vs. canker sores: What are they and how do I get rid of 'em?"

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Causes."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Cold Sores: Tips for Managing."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Diagnosis and Treatment."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Herpes Simplex: Signs and Symptoms."

BMJ Open: "Kanuka honey versus aciclovir for the topical treatment of herpes simplex labialis: a randomised controlled trial."

Herbs with Rosalee: "Cold Sore Remedies."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Cold Sores."

TeensHealth from Nemours: "Cold Sores (HSV-1)."