Got cold sores? Yes, it pretty much means that you have herpes, which is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus. But don’t freak out just yet.
First things first: cold sores are small, painful, fluid-filled blisters that commonly occur on the lips or around the mouth, but they can also appear on your nose and cheeks.
“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 DTAP Clinic. “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.”
Herpes is really common
There are two types of Herpes Simplex Viruses: Type 1 and Type 2. HSV-1 is usually associated with oral herpes while HSV-2 is usually associated with genital herpes.
Symptoms of genital herpes are similar to that of oral herpes, except that the lesions can occur in the genital and anal region.
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 HSV-1 is 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 adds that people with the virus are most infectious 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,” advises 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.
Ways to reduce your risk of an infection
Don’t have cold sores? You should take an STD test anyway to know if you carry the infection. If you don’t, you can reduce your chances of contracting it by ensuring that every new sexual partner you have goes for a screening. This allows you to know what sort of protective measures to take.
Since HSV-1 can also be transmitted through oral-to-oral transmission, you should avoid kissing and sexual contact if your partner has symptoms,.
“If your partner is having a flare of genital or oral herpes, the blisters or ulcers are highly infectious, so abstaining from sexual contact is crucial,” says Dr Huang. “Not sharing food or utensils when someone has a flare of oral herpes also helps.”
That said, herpes can be asymptomatic, which means an infected person may not necessarily suffer from symptoms, so you ought to be very careful about who you come into close contact with.
In a nutshell, if you have cold sores, you have herpes. But just because herpes is still incurable doesn’t mean you have to live with intermittent painful outbreaks for life. There are several things you can do to make it a thing of the past.