Cold Sore Fact Check: Do Cold Sores Mean You Have An STD?
Cold sores are caused by the HSV-1 virus, which is a strain of the herpes simplex virus. The herpes simplex virus has two strains: HSV-1, which causes oral herpes or cold sores, and HSV-2, which causes genital herpes.1,2 In general, HSV-1 is spread via oral-to-oral contact, but it may also cause genital herpes. HSV-2, which is categorized as a sexually transmitted disease, is spread via oral, vaginal and anal sexual contact.1,2,3 If you have a cold sore, then you have been infected with one of the herpes simplex viruses. However, having oral herpes is nothing to be ashamed of! The World Health Organization estimates that around 3.7 billion people around the world under the age of 50 have been infected with HSV-1.1
It’s important to understand the differences between the two strains of the herpes simplex virus. Below, we’ll walk through HSV-1 vs. HSV-2 and give some tips on how to live with oral herpes.
HSV-1 vs. HSV-2
As mentioned, the herpes simplex virus has two strains: HSV-1, which causes oral herpes, and HSV-2, which causes genital herpes.1,2 Both strains of herpes can cause blisters or ulcers that range in severity.1 When these blisters occur around the mouth, they’re called cold sores.2,4
HSV-1 causes oral herpes—also known as cold sores and fever blisters.4 The way that HSV-1 is spread is by engaging in intimate contact like kissing or oral sex with someone who is infected with HSV-1.4 After you become infected with HSV-1 for the first time, you carry the virus with you for the rest of your life.4 For some, the virus lies dormant and they never experience a cold sore outbreak, but others will experience symptoms from time to time.4
The best way to prevent getting infected with HSV-1 is not to engage in direct physical contact with someone currently experiencing HSV-1 symptoms.4 HSV-1 sores appear as fluid-filled blisters on and around the lips.4 The first time you’re infected with HSV-1 tends to be accompanied the most extreme symptoms, including swollen lymph nodes, headache and other flu-like symptoms.4 Subsequent flair ups are typically less severe.4
HSV-2 is the strain of the herpes simplex virus that causes genital herpes.1 The way that HSV-2 is transmitted from person to person is via contact with the anal or genital surfaces, skin, fluid or sores of a person that’s carrying the virus.1 It’s possible for HSV-2 to be transmitted even if there are no visible symptoms.2
Many people experience extremely mild or even no HSV-2 symptoms at all. In other cases, HSV-2 can cause small blisters on or near the genitals, rectum or mouth.3 Like oral herpes, the first genital herpes outbreak tends to have the most severe symptoms and may be accompanied by swollen lymph nodes, headache, fever, body aches and more viral shedding.3
To prevent spreading the HSV-2 virus, those that are infected should avoid having sexual contact with others while experiencing an outbreak.3 Using condoms correctly can also help limit the risk of spreading the virus, but full abstinence from sexual contact is the only way to guarantee that the virus is not transmitted.3
HSV-1 Is Nothing to Worry About!
Oral herpes in an extremely common occurrence—approximately 67% of the population worldwide under the age of 50 have them!1 However, herpes is still largely stigmatized and can be stressful to live with. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that herpes is a manageable condition that—when managed responsibly—doesn’t have to impact your relationships and sexual activities.3
When it comes to treating oral herpes, there are a number of ways you can manage your outbreaks at home. Some options for at-home HSV-1 symptom management include:4
- Using a topical antiviral treatment such as Abreva to get relief
- Managing stress
- Cleaning the area with the sores and keeping it dry
Cold Sores and Mental Health
Even with the above information at your fingertips, managing living with oral herpes can still have an impact on mental health, especially for teens. Luckily, there are a number of mental health apps that teens can use to help support their mental and emotional health through cold sore outbreaks and beyond. The National Institutes of Health recommend the following free apps for teens to manage their mental health:5
- Breath2Relax: A tool developed by the U.S. military that focuses on breathing exercises as a way to manage anger and anxiety and reduce stress.
- KnowBullying: A helpful app for parents and caregivers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that provides tips for helping kids and teens deal with bullying and build self-esteem.
- quitSTART and This Is Quitting: If you believe your child or teen is using tobacco to cope with stress or for other reasons, these two apps can help them quit smoking and vaping.
When it comes to living with cold sores, the first step is educating yourself on the virus and the treatments available. For more information on managing lip health and mental health, check out our articles on stress and cold sores and explore Abreva products.
- Herpes simplex virus. WHO. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus. Accessed 3/25/2022.
- Can You Get Genital Herpes From a Cold Sore? Nemours TeensHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/hsv1-sores.html. Accessed 3/25/2022.
- Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed). CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm. Accessed 3/25/2022.
- Oral Herpes. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/herpes-hsv1-and-hsv2/oral-herpes. Accessed 3/25/2022.
- Virtual Tools for Staying Healthy. NIH. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/virtual-tools-staying-healthy. Accessed 3/25/2022.