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Do Cold Sores Mean You Have an STD?: What Should You Know

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Gerard Tamayo · Updated Jun 25, 2021

Do Cold Sores Mean You Have an STD?: What Should You Know

Oral herpes is a condition caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). It is estimated that 3.7 billion people or 67% of the world’s population under 50 years old are infected with HSV-1, which more commonly causes oral herpes (Herpes Simplex Virus-2 more commonly causes genital herpes). It is estimated that 491 million people, or 13% of people worldwide have HSV-2. 

Most of the population with herpes usually present with very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all (asymptomatic). However, when symptoms do present, they typically pop up as a few small vesicles or blisters that could present on the genitals, the rectum or the mouth. 

Symptoms of Herpes Infections

Herpes usually presents with symptoms of painful blisters or ulcers that can be found on the mouth, rectum, or anus. Oral Herpes is most commonly asymptomatic, in fact, most people with this infection are unaware they are infected. The sores that appear on your lips are known as “cold sores.” And the pain that occurs prior to their eruption can be described as tingling, itching, or burning.

Prior to having blisters, you may also experience sore throat, fever, swollen glands, and painful or difficulty swallowing. These vesicles tend to go away on their own. But they may recur from time to time at a frequency that varies from person to person.

How Do People Get Infected?

HSV-1 infections normally take place during childhood, and the infection stays with you for the rest of your life. It is mainly transmitted by oral-to-oral contact, by having contact with sores, saliva, mucosa, or areas around the mouth. It can also be transmitted to the genital area when there is oral-genital contact, such as that seen during oral sex. Do cold sores mean you have an STD? As mentioned earlier, HSV-1 can and is most commonly spread through other means that do not involve sex.

Whether or not you are asymptomatic, you may still transmit the infection to other people. This is possible through contact with oral or skin surfaces that may or may not appear normal (with or without sores). But the highest chance of transmitting the disease to someone occurs when you have active sores.

HSV-1 can also be transmitted from a mother with a genital HSV-1 infection to her infant during delivery, causing neonatal herpes. This is however a rare circumstance. If you are experiencing symptoms of herpes or suspect you may have the infection and are expecting to deliver your baby soon, please inform your doctor. They may do interventions to prevent the spread to your baby during delivery. 

Do Cold Sores Mean You Have an STD?

So, do cold sores mean you have an STD? The short answer is no. Your symptoms are most likely caused by Herpes Simplex Virus- . Since it is an infection caused by HSV-1, most people would assume that it is an infection contracted through sexual contact. But that is not the case for a majority of the time. As mentioned earlier, a large population of people has HSV-1 and most of these infections occur during childhood, not exclusively during sex.

In contrast, HSV-2 is commonly contracted through unprotected sexual intercourse.

If I Have Oral Herpes, Should I Be Worried?

Oral herpes is very commonly seen in the population. Aside from blisters and sores, there are very little life-threatening aspects regarding this particular type of herpes, so you don’t really have to worry. However, immunocompromised people (such as those with HIV infections) have more frequent symptoms and more severe complications. Rarely, this can lead to the development of encephalitis or keratitis (infections of the brain and the eye respectively).

How Can I Prevent Getting Infected with Herpes?

There is no real way to prevent the transmission of herpes 100%, especially in the case of herpes simplex virus-1 infections. Though there is currently ongoing efforts in developing a vaccine to prevent the spread of infection, none are ready for use to the general public. 

Genital herpes caused by HSV-2 ,on the other hand, can be prevented by practicing safe sexual practices (being exclusive with a partner, using condoms, antivirals for people with HSV-2, avoiding sex during the appearance of symptoms) as this condition is almost exclusively transmitted through sex.

Treatment of Herpes

There is, to this date, no cure for herpes but you can treat its symptoms by suppressing the virus. Herpes is typically treated with antiviral medications such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir.

Key Takeaways

Oral herpes is a condition most commonly caused by HSV-1 and is seen in a large population of people globally. HSV-1 is transmitted through direct contact with the mouth and its surrounding structures, as well as through contact with saliva.

It is most commonly contracted during childhood and not necessarily through sex. Hence, itmay not be considered an STD. It is relatively harmless, as it only causes cold sores and mild symptoms. But it can be dangerous in immunocompromised individuals (such as those with HIV infections). The symptoms of herpes can be controlled by taking antivirals, but there is no cure for the disease nor is there means of absolute prevention.

Learn more about Genital Herpes here


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

John Paul Abrina, MD

Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Gerard Tamayo · Updated Jun 25, 2021

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