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.


 

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Medically Reviewed on 2/16/2021
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?"