Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions
Is a cold sore herpes?
I have cold sores and someone told me that means I have herpes. Is that true? I thought they were just something everyone got.
Lisa Oldson, MD on November 21, 2011
Thanks for your question.
The short answer is yes, cold sores are caused by a herpes virus. Typically cold sores (oral herpes) are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1).
And you’re right that many people do have oral herpes. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006, more than half of the people in the United States will get an oral HSV-1 infection by the time they’re an adult.
How do people get oral herpes? A large number of people get oral herpes from a kiss, often in childhood. And because herpes is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, it can occur through a simple closed-mouth kiss from a parent or partner who is infected.
If you think you might have cold sores, I encourage you to visit your doctor. There, a physician can take a small sample from the sores to test them for herpes. Because other bumps around the mouth might look like cold sores too, it’s a good idea to get tested to be sure.
If the cold sore has already healed, you can get tested for HSV-1 using our Herpes Simplex Virus Type-Specific HSV-1/2 IgG blood test. And if you’re positive, you can speak with your doctor about your need for treatment. (Just so you know, for mild infections, you may not even need treatment.)
One more thing...an oral HSV-1 infection can be transmitted to the mouth or genitals of a partner. If you have active cold sores, it’s a good idea not to touch your mouth to any body parts on a partner. And even after the sores have healed, using barrier protection ⎼ condoms or dental dams ⎼ can help reduce the risk of transmission, too.
I hope you’ll also look into our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2 to learn more about herpes simplex virus, herpes testing and treatment.
Thanks for your question and I wish you the best of health.
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.