In general, there are some mixed confusion about common cold sores around the mouth and whether are all cold sores caused by herpes virus.
Typically, when a health care professional hears the word “cold sores”, they will generally associate it to an outbreak of lesions that occur on the lip or around the mouth that is caused by the herpes simplex virus.
However, there are many individuals who got the standard cold sores mixed up with canker sores (which is also sometimes refer to as cold sores by laymen) or even with shingles (also another form of herpes infection with similar symptoms that may occur around the mouth). So, it may not be surprising to know that people who had the herpes simplex cold sores been told that they have canker sores or shingles, and vice versa.
Oral Herpes, Canker Sores And Shingles – What’s The Difference?
There are two types of herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Most commonly, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1) causes the primary and recurrent outbreaks of small painful blisters, especially on the lips and around the mouth which is refer to as oral herpes. Sometimes, the infection can also appear on other parts of the face.
Oral herpes is also commonly known as cold sores (or fever blisters) due to the fact that the infection or outbreaks usually occur when the immune system of an individual is weaken or when someone is having an illness (like during a fever or common cold).
During an outbreak, watery blisters will form, burst open as painful sores, later dry, crust and then heal. The duration of the cold sores outbreak may last between 7 to 14 days.
Cold sores are considered a viral infection and is highly contagious. It is primarily spread via contact with oral secretions while sharing a glass of drink, during kissing or through oral to genital sex with an infected individual. However it can also be transmitted if someone comes into physical contact by touching an open cold sore.
Known as aphthous ulcers or mouth ulcers, canker sores are small painful ulcerations that form on the soft tissue linings in the mouth, or on the gums.
It is important to point out that medical doctors do not refer canker sores as cold sores. The association of cold sores as cranker sores or vice versa often comes from laymen who do not know how to differentiate between the two condition and which is what causes the confusion and mixed up. Medically speaking, all cold sores are herpes however canker sores are not herpes related and they are definitely not contagious.
Also refered as herpes zoster, shingles is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that causes chicken pox. Even when the chicken pox rash is gone, the varicella-zoster virus continues to remain latent in the nerves of the body until is is reactivated again as shingles that causes painful blisters on the skin that typically affects one side of the body.
Shingles is most commonly mixed up with the herpes simplex virus (HSV) since symptoms of an outbreak can be quite similar and painful. However, the key difference is shingles rarely recurs and if it does get reactivated, it will only occur in 3% of adults aged 60 or older due to a weak immune response to the varicella-zoster virus.
In most cases, shingles appear on the body but there are rare cases that the rash may appear on the face and mouth. However shingles is not related to as any form of sexually transmitted diseases such as the herpes simplex virus that causes herpes genitalis, or oral herpes.
During an outbreak, shingles is highly contagious to babies and adults who never had chicken pox. The infection can be transmitted via air from breathing and coughing or skin to skin contact, and once infected, these people will develop develop chicken pox. Shingles is not contagious to those who previously already had chicken pox.
Can Cold Sores Cause Genital Herpes Or Become Genital Herpes?
In the past, cold sores have generally been herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), however, due to increase incidences of oral-genital contact during sexual activity between partners, people can get HSV-1 on their genitals and cause genital herpes.
On the other hand, individuals can also contract herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2) on their mouth if oral sex is performed on a partner with HSV-2 genital herpes infection.
Note: If a person gets genital herpes from a partner who has HSV-1 during oral-genital sex, the genital herpes infection will be a type 1 herpes virus and will not become a type 2 genital herpes infection. The same goes to say that herpes simplex type 2 cold sores can cause a HSV-2 genital herpes infection.
Are Cold Sores Considered An STD?
Generally speaking, there are many people out there who do not considered cold sores as a form of STD if the herpes simplex virus is type-1 since so many people are exposed to it and many associate the stigma of STD as a form of disease that are transmitted through vaginal or anal sex.
However, since the medical discovery that it is possible to transmitted HSV-2 to the mouth during oral-genital sex, cold sores (oral herpes) is now considered an STD.
What Should Individuals Do If They Suspect They Have Cold Sores
Individuals who notice symptoms of small blisters around the lip or mouth should schedule a visit with their physician to get diagnosed to distinguish whether it is a HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection.
In general, if the cold sores are visible, the health care professional will perform a viral swab test called viral culture to get a sample of the sore to be tested in a lab. If there are no visible physical sores or if the sores have healed, clinicians may opt for a blood antibody test called the Western blot herpes antibody test to look for antibodies to the herpes virus in the blood.
Treatment for cold sores can vary according to individuals and severity of the outbreaks.
For initial outbreaks of oral herpes, the symptoms are usually quite severe and painful and doctors may prescribe oral antiviral medications such acyclovir (zovirax), famciclovir (famvir) or valacyclovir (Valtrex) to help reduce the pain and speed up the healing of the sores.
Recurrent outbreaks of cold sores are generally less painful and topical creams such as HERP-B-GONE or Docosanol 10% (Abreva) can be used to reduce the pain, itching as well as the healing of the sore on the skin.
Additional complementary treatments such as taking vitamin C and lysine supplements may help reduce the frequency of the outbreaks.