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What is the Difference Between Cold Sores and Herpes?

writtenByWritten by: Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer is a contributing health writer who has been researching and writing health content with PlushCare for 3 years. She is passionate about bringing accessible healthcare and mental health services to people everywhere.

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reviewBy Reviewed by: Ken Cosby M.D.
Reviewer

Ken Cosby M.D.

Dr. Ken Cosby received his medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine (Washington, DC) and completed his research post-doc work at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health including the National Heart Lung Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute.

March 28, 2021 Read Time - 5 minutes

Cold Sore vs Herpes: What’s the Difference?

Many people are confused about the difference between a cold sore vs herpes. What is the difference? The short answer is that cold sores are a symptom of herpes. 

Continue reading to learn more about cold sores, herpes, and treatment options.

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Are Cold Sores and Herpes the Same Thing?

No. Herpes can cause cold sores, but they are not the same thing. 

What Causes Cold Sores?

Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus, usually herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1). The herpes simplex type 2 virus (HSV-2) typically causes genital herpes. However, either type can cause either cold sores or genital warts.

What Are Cold Sores?

Cold sores, which are caused by the herpes virus, are red, fluid-filled blisters that usually form around the mouth, although they may also appear on other areas of the face. Occasionally, cold sores may also show up on the nose, fingers or even the inside of the mouth.

Cold Sore Symptoms

The symptoms of cold sores are usually more severe the first time you have an outbreak and are milder during future outbreaks. Cold sore symptoms can include:

  • Tingling or burning that starts up to a few days before blisters form
  • A raised, red blister full of fluid that is tender and painful
  • Fever
  • Sore throat or pain when you swallow
  • Headache
  • Body aches or pains
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Nausea

What Are the Stages of a Cold Sore?

Cold sores go through 5 stages:

  • Stage 1: Itching and tingling about 24 hours before blisters show up
  • Stage 2: Fluid-filled blisters appear
  • Stage 3: The blisters ooze, burst, and become painful sores
  • Stage 4: Sores dry out and scab over, which leads to cracking and itching
  • Stage 5: The scab falls off and the cold sore is healed

How Do You Get Rid of a Cold Sore?

While there is no cure, and they usually go away on their own within a few weeks, cold sore treatment is available which can help shorten the length of time you need to deal with the cold sore. Here are a few ways you may be able to get rid of a cold sore faster:

  • Creams and ointments like penciclovir (Denavir) and docosanol (Abreva) are applied several times a day and can control pain and promote healing.
  • Oral antiviral medications like famciclovir (Famvir), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and acyclovir (Zovirax) are available by prescription only and can be useful in helping to treat and prevent frequent cold sore outbreaks.
  • Home remedies may provide some relief. Options include ice, lip balm with lemon extract, aloe vera gel, witch hazel, petroleum jelly, and lysine supplements.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Difference Between Cold Sore vs Herpes?

Cold sores are a clinical sign of a herpes virus infection. Once you have the herpes virus, you have it for the rest of your life, and you may experience periodic cold sores. Outbreaks usually depend on your current health status. 

Does Everyone Get Cold Sores?

No, only people who are infected with the herpes virus get cold sores. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 – or 67% of the population – are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). That means as many as two out of every three people may get cold sores.

Do Cold Sores Mean You Have an STD?

While herpes is often transmitted through sexual activity, there are other ways to get the herpes virus. Sharing items like makeup, towels, or toothbrushes with somebody who is infected can cause you to get herpes and, as a result, start having cold sores.

Can You Get a Cold Sore Without Herpes?

No, cold sores are only caused by the herpes virus. 

How Long Does a Herpes Outbreak Usually Last?

Herpes outbreaks typically last around 20 days.

What Is the Difference Between Canker Sores and Cold Sores?

Is a canker sore the same as a cold sore? What’s the difference?

Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus and are usually found on the outside of the mouth. Canker sores are only found inside the mouth and have a variety of causes, including:

  • Injury to the inside of the mouth
  • Stress
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Hormone fluctuation
  • Use of toothpaste or mouthwash that contains sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Conditions that affect your immune system like lupus or inflammatory bowel disease
  • A reaction to certain foods like nuts, chocolate, or spicy foods

Canker sores are usually round or oval and white or yellow. They typically go away on their own within a week or two. For large or especially painful canker sores, or ones that don’t go away within a couple of weeks, talk to a doctor about treatment options.

How Long Are Cold Sores Contagious?

Anybody with the herpes virus can transmit it to another person whether or not they currently have cold sores. However, cold sores are the most contagious when the blisters are open and oozing.

How Do I Stop Getting Cold Sores?

If you get frequent cold sores, you may benefit from an oral antiviral medication like famciclovir (Famvir), valacyclovir (Valtrex), or acyclovir (Zovirax). These medications are available by prescription only, so talk to your doctor if you get more than a few cold sores every year.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

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Cold Sore Treatment Online

Luckily, now you can get oral herpes treatment online with PlushCare. You will have a 15-minute phone or video appointment with one of our licensed doctors. If they think it would be appropriate, they can send an electronic prescription for an antiviral medication like valacyclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir), or acyclovir (Zovirax) to your local pharmacy.

Same-day appointments are often available, so you could get cold sore treatment as soon as today. To make an appointment, click here.


Read More About Cold Sores


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Mayo Clinic. Cold Sore. Accessed on January 11, 2021 at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cold-sore/symptoms-causes/syc-20371017

National Institutes of Health. Treatment and Prevention of Herpes Labialis. Accessed on January 11, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2602638/

World Health Organization. Globally, an estimated two-thirds of the population under 50 are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1. Accessed on January 11, 2021 at https://www.who.int/news/item/28-10-2015-globally-an-estimated-two-thirds-of-the-population-under-50-are-infected-with-herpes-simplex-virus-type-1 

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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