Are cold sores herpes?

Casey Randall AlphaBiolabs

By Casey Randall, Head of Genetics at AlphaBiolabs

Last reviewed: 02/12/2022

In this article, we discuss cold sores, what they are, the different strains of herpes (herpes simplex virus) and the symptoms they may cause (including cold sores).

Table of contents
  • What is herpes?
  • What are cold sores?
  • What are the signs and symptoms of cold sores?
  • Are cold sores herpes?
  • Are cold sores always herpes?
  • Will I have cold sores forever?
  • What is HSV-1?
  • What is HSV-2?
  • Can you get genital herpes from someone with a cold sore?
  • Can you get genital herpes from oral sex?
  • Is it possible to get cold sores and genital herpes at the same time?
  • How can herpes and cold sores be treated?
  • Where can I get a test for herpes?

What is herpes?

The herpes simplex virus – often referred to as herpes – is a virus that is commonly passed on through sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, and sexual touching.

However, it can also be passed on via non-sexual skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.

There are two types of herpes infection, both of which are caused by the herpes simplex virus:

  • HSV-1 – which typically causes oral herpes (e.g. cold sores) but can also cause genital herpes
  • HSV-2 – the more common cause of genital herpes

There is currently no cure for herpes, with the infection remaining in a person’s body throughout their life once they have been infected.

However, certain antiviral medications can be used to lessen the symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other people.

If you have symptoms that could indicate you have herpes, we strongly advise that you contact your GP or local sexual health service as soon as possible, for further advice and guidance.

Symptoms can include small sores, ulcers and/or wart-like growths on the genitals and other parts of the body, itching or burning around the genitals, pain when you urinate, and unusual vaginal discharge.

You can learn more about herpes by visiting www.sexwise.org.uk.

What are cold sores?

Cold sores are contagious ulcers, blisters or sores that typically appear around the mouth or lips but can appear anywhere on the face.

They are usually caused by a strain of herpes (herpes simplex virus) known as HSV-1 but can also be caused by herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV-2).

The incubation period of cold sores – the time it takes from when a person first becomes infected, to when they first begin to experience symptoms – is between 12 and 20 days.

There is currently no cure for cold sores, with the infection remaining in the person’s body throughout their life once they are infected.

However, a GP or pharmacist will be able to advise on the best treatments to help ease the symptoms during a cold sore outbreak.

What are the signs and symptoms of cold sores?

The incubation period of cold sores – the time it takes from when a person first becomes infected, to when they first begin to experience symptoms – is between 12 and 20 days.

The start of a cold sore can cause a tingling, itching, or burning sensation, that is usually mild.

This is followed by the appearance of small, fluid-filled blisters than often appear around the mouth and lips, but can also occur elsewhere on the face.

A cold sore outbreak can last up to 10 days and usually clears up without treatment. However, some people may experience more severe symptoms that take longer to heal or cause additional discomfort.

If you are experiencing cold sore symptoms that are causing you pain and discomfort, or that require face-to-face examination, speak to your GP for further advice and guidance. 

Are cold sores herpes?

Cold sores are caused by a strain of the herpes simplex virus known as HSV-1, meaning that they are a form of herpes.

HSV-1 is a type of virus that is typically spread through oral contact such as kissing. However, it can also be caught/spread in other ways, such as by sharing toothbrushes or lip balm with an infected person.

HSV-2 is the strain of the herpes simplex virus that is commonly transmitted sexually and can cause genital herpes.

However, both strains of the virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2) can cause either oral or genital herpes, depending on how they were passed between people.

This means that cold sores can be the result of an HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection.

Are cold sores always herpes?

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, meaning that they are a form of herpes.

There are other infections, disorders or sources of irritation that can cause sores in and around the mouth. However, as these are not caused by the herpes simplex virus, they cannot be classed as herpes.

Will I have cold sores forever?

There is currently no cure for herpes – the virus that causes cold sores – with the infection remaining in a person’s body throughout their life once they are infected.

If you have been diagnosed as having cold sores (oral herpes/HSV-1), you will likely experience recurrent cold sore outbreaks throughout your life.

In most cases, cold sores only cause mild discomfort, and will usually clear up on their own within 10 days. While there is no cure for cold sores, your GP or pharmacist will be able to recommend suitable treatments to manage the symptoms and reduce discomfort.

What is HSV-1?

Herpes simplex virus type-1 (HSV-1) – sometimes referred to as oral herpes – is a common virus that is typically spread through oral contact such as kissing, often during childhood.

It is estimated that around two-thirds of the world’s population is infected with HSV-1.

The virus can lay dormant for years but can periodically flare up, resulting in a cold sore outbreak.

The frequency of cold sores varies from person-to-person. Some people will have regular outbreaks (often triggered by other infections, stress, fatigue, or hormone imbalance), whereas others may never experience a cold sore.

Symptoms of oral herpes can include redness, swelling, pain and itching in the area where cold sores are due to appear, followed by fluid-filled blisters.

HSV-1 is contagious even when an individual has no symptoms, but is most contagious during an outbreak (i.e. when there is an active ulcer, sore or blister).

What is HSV-2?

Herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV-2) – also known as genital herpes – is a virus that is commonly spread through sexual contact such as vaginal, anal, or oral sex, and intimate/sexual touching.

Genital herpes (HSV-2) is classed as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), with symptoms that typically affect the genitals and anus.

It is estimated that more than 10% of the world’s adult population is infected with HSV-2.

Genital herpes (HSV-2) is contagious even when a person has no symptoms, but the virus is most contagious during an active infection/outbreak (e.g. when a person has active sores or lesions).

It is recommended that people with genital herpes abstain from sexual contact, to prevent the spread of the infection to other people.

Symptoms of genital herpes can include small sores, ulcers and/or wart-like growths on the genitals and other parts of the body, itching or burning around the genitals, pain when urinating and, in women, unusual vaginal discharge.

If you have symptoms that could indicate you have genital herpes, we strongly advise that you contact your GP or local sexual health service as soon as possible, for further advice and guidance.

Can you get genital herpes from someone with a cold sore?

Because cold sores are typically caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), which can also cause genital herpes, it is possible to catch genital herpes from someone with a cold sore.

For additional guidance on safe sex, speak to your GP or local sexual health service.

Can you get genital herpes from oral sex?

Both strains of herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2) can be passed on to other people during oral sex.

If a person has oral herpes (HSV-1/cold sores) and performs oral sex, the virus can spread to their partner’s genital area.

If a person has genital herpes (typically HSV-2) and they receive oral sex, it is possible for the infection to spread to their partner’s mouth.

Is it possible to get cold sores and genital herpes at the same time?

It is possible to have cold sores and genital herpes at the same time.

Both oral herpes and genital herpes can be caused by herpes simplex virus type-1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV-2).

How can herpes and cold sores be treated?

There is currently no cure for herpes, with the infection remaining in a person’s body throughout their life once they have been infected.

Symptoms can clear up on their own but may return during an outbreak or recurrence. However, certain antiviral medications are available to treat the symptoms and reduce the risk of the infection spreading to other people.

Over-the-counter remedies are also available to help lessen the symptoms of cold sores.

Research is currently ongoing into the prevention and treatment of herpes simplex virus (herpes) infection.

For further advice on treatment for herpes and cold sores, speak to your GP, pharmacist or local sexual health service.

Where can I get a test for herpes?

For just £65.00, our Herpes & Syphilis Test can tell you whether you have herpes simplex virus type-1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV-2).

The test requires a lesion swab sample to be collected from a visible lesion, sore or ulcer, meaning that you must be experiencing symptoms to take the test.

Our Herpes Test can also be used if you have facial cold sores and want to find out whether you have contracted HSV-1 or HSV-2.

Cold sores are highly contagious, and usually caused by HSV-1. However, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be spread to the face through skin-to-skin contact.

Please note you must be at least 16 years of age to purchase a home STI test kit from AlphaBiolabs.

If you are experiencing symptoms that are causing severe pain and discomfort, or require a face-to-face examination, we advise you to contact your GP or local sexual health clinic as soon as possible.

Order an STI test kit

At-home STI testing you can trust, from just £28.

Casey Randall

Casey Randall

Head of DNA & Health Testing at AlphaBiolabs

Casey joined the AlphaBiolabs team in 2012 and heads up both the DNA & Health Testing teams, having played a key role in establishing AlphaBiolabs’ Covid-19 testing laboratory in 2020.

Casey is responsible for maintaining the highest quality testing standards, as well as looking for ways to further enhance the service that AlphaBiolabs provides and exploring new and innovative techniques in DNA analysis.

An expert in DNA analysis and a member of the International Society for Forensic Genetics (ISFG), Casey holds an MSc with Distinction in DNA Profiling and a First-Class BSc with Honours in Forensic Science.

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