If you have a cold sore, this means that you're infected with the herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1) virus that causes oral herpes. Having a cold sore doesn't mean that you have the kind of herpes that no one wants to talk about--genital herpes. However, if you have an unhealed cold sore, you can pass HSV-1 on to others and even give them genital herpes.
What Is Herpes?
There are more than 25 viruses in the family of Herpesviridae (HSV). Eight of these commonly cause infections in people. In fact, HSV is the primary cause of most viral infections. HSV-1 is associated with cold sores (also called fever blisters), while herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2) is the main cause of genital herpes. But the herpes virus also causes many other illnesses, such as shingles, the Epstein Barr virus and a skin condition called Kaposi's sarcoma.
How Do You Get Cold Sores?
Cold sores are usually contracted innocently, through a kiss from a family member or friend who has HSV-1. The virus then travels to the nerve ganglia at the top of your spine, where it "sleeps" until something causes it to reactivate. The result is a watery sore around your mouth, although sometimes sores can erupt inside of the nose or on the chin. Rarely will cold sores erupt inside your mouth.
Are Cold Sores Common?
Cold sores caused by HSV-1 are very common. The American Social Health Association states that anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of people in the United States have oral herpes. By the time this population reaches the age of 50, up to 90 percent will have HSV-1. Most people get HSV-1 when they are children.
How Are Cold Sores Treated?
Cold sores are painful and unattractive, but they usually go away between 7 and 10 days and don't require a trip to the doctor. If your cold sore is causing you pain, you can use a cream or ointment that contains lidocaine or benzyl alcohol, such as Zilactin. These topical treatments can be bought at a drugstore. Most people--around 75 percent--only have one outbreak of oral herpes. Those who have frequent cold sores may have to take a prescription antiviral medication called Zovirax, Famvir or Valtrex.
The Danger of Cold Sores
There's no reason to be embarrassed by a cold sore, but there is shame in needlessly spreading HSV-1 to others, either through kissing or more intimate contact. Genital herpes is most often caused by skin-to-skin contact. However, if you have a cold sore, you can give someone genital herpes by infecting them with the HSV-1 virus. They won't have genital herpes caused by HSV-2, but genital herpes caused by HSV-1.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the number of people with genital herpes caused by HSV-1 is steadily increasing because oral sex has become popular in the past ten years. Around 1 out of 10 people get genital herpes from oral sex.