Herpes viruses typically infect the oral or genital mucosa. When herpes affects the mouth, it causes the typical "cold sores," which are painful sores or blisters that form on the lips, mouth, or gums. Prior to the development of the blisters, there may be a prodrome (early symptoms indicating onset of a particular disease) consisting of an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the affected area. The virus remains dormant in the nervous system throughout life, and this is the reason that cold sores often recur in the same location.
If not treated immediately, it has potential spread to other parts of the body. Being highly contagious in nature it gets readily transmitted by sharing utensils, clothes, and toothbrush. Maintaining sexual contact, kissing and touching also leads to the spread of virus. It is likely to spread more when the virus is present with physical outbursts. It is less contagious if the virus is present without any outward physical signs.
If you think you have or have been exposed to herpes you should see your primary care provider for follow up, screening, and possible treatment. Many providers today will not test unless you have symptoms of an outbreak, as often tests come back as false positive and the CDC has concluded that false positives cause psychological trauma to those tested. There is much debate on if you should test without symptoms or not, others say it is unethical to not be aware of your current STD status and risk infecting other people.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.