Herpes virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the cause of cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. Usually, the sores or blisters can show up on the outside of the mouth or on the lips. But sometimes, they can be inside the mouth, on the face, nose, cheeks or fingers. HSV-1 can also lead to infection of the genitals, called genital herpes. This occurs when you have a cold sore and perform oral sex on another person. HSV-1 infections are highly contagious. Apart from oral-genital contact, they can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. If you come into contact with a person or a thing that carries HSV-1, you will be likely to get it, too. Often, people get HSV-1 from kissing someone with a cold sore or when they share eating utensils, razors, or towels.
Not every person with a herpes infection actually experiences breakouts of cold sores throughout his or her lifetime or even after initially becoming infected. How often someone has a herpes cold sore outbreak, how severe the outbreaks are, how contagious someone is after infection and how long the sores take to heal all depend on someone’s individual immune response.
Primary orofacial herpes is readily identified by examination of persons with no previous history of lesions and contact with an individual with known HSV infection. The appearance and distribution of sores is typically presents as multiple, round, superficial oral ulcers, accompanied by acute gingivitis. Adults with atypical presentation are more difficult to diagnose. Prodromal symptoms that occur before the appearance of herpetic lesions help differentiate HSV symptoms from the similar symptoms of other disorders, such as allergic stomatitis. When lesions do not appear inside the mouth, primary orofacial herpes is sometimes mistaken for impetigo, a bacterial infection. Common mouth ulcers (aphthous ulcer) also resemble intraoral herpes, but do not present a vesicular stage.
When a herpes outbreak occurs, you can expect cold sores to take about 10–14 days to heal on average. During this time period, the virus is considered to be active, and you should be very careful to avoid direct contact between a sore and someone else. If after trying the natural remedies for herpes described above you still experience frequent recurrences, talk to your doctor for how to get rid of herpes symptoms. Sometimes immunity is suppressed due to another infection or virus, or even as a side effect of taking some medications, so be sure to rule these causes out.
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.