At myLAB Box, we come across questions about cold sores all the time. Is my cold sore an STD? Do cold sores mean that I have herpes? Even though some cold sores are caused by the virus being introduced as a child without sexual contact, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be transmitted sexually. It’s important to stay aware of all of the risks associated with Herpes Simplex Virus.
Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is a virus that causes both oral and genital herpes. The virus infects the body by entering the skin through mucous-coated surfaces. It then sets itself up in the nerve cells. Typically, oral herpes is caused by HSV-1 and triggers cold sores and fever blisters around the mouth. Most people who have been infected with HSV-1 get the virus during childhood from non-sexual contact. More than half of the US population has HSV-1, yet many don’t show any signs or symptoms.
Genital herpes can be caused by both HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is spread from the mouth to the genitals through oral sex. Because of this HSV-1 has becoming increasingly more common especially in young women.
Fluids from a herpes sore carry the virus. Contact with these fluids are what causes infection. You can also contract herpes from an infected person who shows no signs, or may not even know that they are infected since the virus releases through the skin.
Many people infected with HSV present no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they vary from person to person. Once a person is infected, the virus stays in the body. You may not have an outbreak until something triggers it to become active. This could occur years after your initial infection.
Life of a Cold Sore
The cold sore has several stages. Warning signs like itching, tingling, and burning let you know that a cold sore is forming. Once the blister appears it starts out small and begins to grow. Over the next few days the sore breaks and may ooze, this stage is called the “weeping” stage. After it scabs over the scab will flake off and reveal healing skin. An average sore lasts around 7-10 days.
The bad news is that once you’ve become infected, you are unfortunately stuck with the virus. Luckily, there are ways to keep outbreaks from happening and reduce the amount of time the outbreaks will last.
Note that herpes is most contagious when cold sores are in the weeping stage. It’s important to be extra cautious if you are in this stage of an outbreak. Do not share utensils, cups or have any sexual contact.
There are many things that can trigger an outbreak including fever, menstruation, stress, and even exposure to sunlight. Leading a healthy lifestyle, like getting enough sleep and wearing sunscreen, will also lessen the number and severity of outbreaks.
There are a number of different over the counter and prescription creams and oral medications that will help reduce the lifespan of a cold sore. These creams work by interfering with the viral replication that happens before the cold sore appears on the skin’s surface.
If you are sexually active, it is important to get tested regularly. myLAB Box offers a variety of at home STD testing kits including a Genital Herpes test. Learn more about how are at home testing works here.
- G R Skinner, C E Hartley, D Millar, and E Bishop. (1979). Possible treatment for cold sores. Br Med J.
- Vanessa N. Richardson, Scott A. Davis, Cheryl J. Gustafson, Cameron E. West & Steven R. Feldman. (2013). Patterns of disease and treatment of cold sores. Journal of Dermatological Treatment.
- The First Common Cold Sore Susceptibility Gene. The Journal of Infectious Diseases.