Oral herpes is a viral infection mainly of the mouth area and lips caused by a specific type of the herpes simplex virus. Oral herpes is also termed HSV-1, type 1 herpes simplex virus, or herpes labialis. The virus causes painful sores on the upper and lower lips, gums, tongue, roof of the mouth, inside the cheeks or nose, and sometimes on the face, chin, and neck. Infrequently, it may cause genital lesions. It also can cause symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fever, and muscle aches. People commonly refer to the infection as "cold sores."
Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, and may show symptoms around the genital area (anus, buttocks, thigh, penis, vulva, etc.). Additionally, people with HIV can experience significantly worse symptoms of herpes. See a doctor if your partner has herpes, or if you notice any unusual sores on your body. How do you know if you have herpes? Read more in our Diagnosing Herpes section here.
Pain, sore lips, burning sensation, tingling, or itching occurs at the infection site before the sores appear. These are the early symptoms (prodrome). Sometimes these symptoms happen prior to the appearance of sores, bumps, pimple-like lesions, or blisters (herpes or herpetic stomatitis). Thereafter, clusters or groups of painful blisters (also termed fever blisters) or vesicles erupt or ooze with a clear to yellowish fluid that may develop into a yellowish crust. These blisters break down rapidly and appear as tiny, shallow gray ulcers on a red base. Fever blisters are smaller than canker sores. A few days later, they become crusted or scabbed and appear drier and more yellow.
The herpes simplex virus is probably the most well-known virus of the herpes family, and it is just as contagious. Herpes simplex infects epithelial cells and remains latent in neurons. HSV-1 causes recurrent oropharyngeal lesions, commonly known as “fever blisters" or "cold sores.” It is also the primary cause of sporadic encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), gingivostomatitis (inflammation of the gums and mucous lining of the mouth), and keratoconjunctivitis (severe dryness of the eye that involves the cornea) and dendritic corneal ulcers (also called HSV keratitis) in which the cornea becomes affected by herpetic lesions that look like the dendrites of neurons in the brain.
Herpes infection can be passed from you to your unborn child before birth but is more commonly passed to your infant during delivery. This can lead to a potentially deadly infection in your baby (called neonatal herpes). It is important that you avoid getting herpes during pregnancy. If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, you may be offered anti-herpes medicine towards the end of your pregnancy. This medicine may reduce your risk of having signs or symptoms of genital herpes at the time of delivery. At the time of delivery, your doctor should carefully examine you for herpes sores. If you have herpes symptoms at delivery, a ‘C-section’ is usually performed.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
However, there is much more to the herpes virus than just chicken pox or genital herpes. For instance, after an active infection, the virus is shed (eliminated) in the urine and feces for up to several months (sometimes years in the case of the cytomegalovirus) after the active infection has resolved. This means the infected person is still contagious, which is what makes this virus so contagious. It can easily be transferred when the patient is asymptomatic.
HSV-2 is contracted through forms of sexual contact with a person who has HSV-2. An estimated 20 percent of sexually active adults in the United States are infected with HSV-2, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). HSV-2 infections are spread through contact with a herpes sore. In contrast, most people get HSV-1 from an infected person who is asymptomatic, or does not have sores.