- Cold Sores vs. Herpes
- Signs and Symptoms
- When to See a Doctor
What are cold sores vs. 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 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:
Cold sores last 7-10 days and can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. They may tingle, burn, leak liquid, and be painful.
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.
- 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:
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 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.
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.
Skin Problems and Treatments Resources
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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?"