Got cold sores around your mouth or on your lips? Yes, it pretty much means that you have herpes. But don’t freak out just yet.
First things first: cold sores are small, painful, fluid-filled blisters that commonly occur near the mouth or on the face, but they can also appear elsewhere on the body.
“The appearance of cold sores are sometimes preceded by an unusual tingling or itching sensation over the same area and usually occur in clusters,” says Dr Grace Huang of Dr. Tan & Partners. “They burst and at some point leave shallow ulcers or open sores that scab and form crusty lesions, and each flare lasts up to a few weeks.”
They’re really common
There are two types of Herpes Simplex Viruses: Type 1 and Type 2. HSV-1 usually causes cold sores while HSV-2 tends to cause genital sores.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HSV-1 is extremely common in the general population. In fact, in 2012, WHO estimated that some 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 suffer from the infection.
How is HSV-1 transmitted?
HSV-1 is transmitted through body secretions. Dr Huang explains that it can transmitted through oral-to-oral transmission (such as kissing or even the sharing of utensils), which means it won’t necessarily be transmitted through sexual contact, but that it can also be transmitted during oral-to-genital secretion (like during oral intercourse).
“Someone with cold sores can transmit HSV-1 to their partner’s genitals, resulting in genital sores,” she says. She adds that people with the virus are most contagious when they have cold sores, but they are still infectious even when they have no sores or blisters.
And here’s the thing: herpes infections are lifelong. So once you’re infected, you carry the virus for life.
“This is the reason why cold sores can flare up from time to time. There are certain triggers that can set off an outbreak and these include environmental factors such as sunlight and cold temperatures, or anything that weakens your immune system, such as an illness or medications which suppress your immunity,” she says.
The virus can be contained
While there is no cure for Herpes Simplex Viruses, anti-viral medications can help suppress the virus and treat an outbreak of cold sores. They can also prevent or minimise future outbreaks, so if you contract herpes, you can count on these meds to keep the infection under control.
“Some people may not be significantly bothered by their cold sores, which flare up only occasionally and go away by themselves. However, if you are troubled by your symptoms, anti-virals such as acyclovir or valacyclovir are available as both oral tablets and topical creams,” says Dr Huang.
“Sometimes, just the topical cream may be enough to treat the cold sores, but if they fail to respond or if your flare is particularly bad, your doctor may prescribe a short course of tablets on top of the cream.”
She points out that suppressive anti-viral therapy not only stops the occurrence of flares, but also reduces your risk of transmitting the virus to others.
In a nutshell, if you have cold sores, you have herpes. But just because herpes is as of now incurable doesn’t mean you have to live with intermittent painful outbreaks for life—there are several things you can do to make them a thing of the past.