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Why aren't Cold Sores Called Herpes?

Updated on December 29, 2013

Cold sores are caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus. The virus stays dormant inside the host’s body and comes to live due to a weakened immune system, a stressful event, or the common cold or illness. Cold sores are characterized by the occurrence of small but painful blisters that form on the outside part of the mouth, near the cheeks, lips, or on the nose. A cold sore stint can be cut short by making use of some treatments and remedies; however, the virus itself can never be gotten rid of completely. Thus, cold sores are not curable.


Due to the link cold sores has with the herpes simplex virus, many people often question why cold sores are not called herpes. The answer to this question is quite simple as there are a large number of differences between cold sores and the herpes virus. These differences have been stated in great detail below:

1. Cold Sores are a Product of the Herpes Simplex Virus 1
Cold sores are caused by HSV-1, while herpes can be caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2. While cold sores are characterized by the occurrence of blisters on the mouth, HSV-2 causes genital herpes which is another disease. Therefore, herpes has two forms, HSV-1 and HSV-2, with cold sores being caused by the latter, although at times there is a cross over too. 5% of cold sores are caused by the HSV-2 virus, while half of the cases of genital herpes are caused by the HSV-1 virus too. However, since the two are quite different diseases, it is not suitable to refer to cold sores as herpes, as herpes has two different and distinct forms.

2. Different Characteristics
Herpes can make its presence felt in two distinct ways, with the primary variable being oral or genital herpes. Oral herpes is also known as cold sores, and as stated earlier are reddish blisters that can lead to a lot of pain. Genital herpes on the other hand is defined by the presence of lesions that occur on the genitals.

In addition, while both cold sores and genital herpes are contagious, there are differences in the ways they can be transmitted to others. Cold sores can be transmitted through kissing, or through the general share of utensils. Drinking glasses and towels can all transmit cold sores. Genital herpes on the other hand can only be transmitted through sexual contact such as an intercourse. This is the reason why experts advise people who have genital herpes to abstain from sexual contact.

3. Differences in Identification
While cold sores can be identified rather easily due to the formation of blisters on the mouth, genital herpes is quite difficult to diagnose. This difficulty in identification can be attributed to the resemblance that genital herpes can have to other infections. Thus, this is precisely the reason why so many people fail to know about genital herpes and indulge in sexual contact, affecting more people with the disease.

4. Different Age of Acquisition
According to experts, cold sores are usually contracted by people before they hit puberty. Genital herpes on the other hand is contracted at a later stage when an individual actually has sexual contact with an affected person.

5. Different Treatments
A major difference between cold sores and genital herpes is in the treatments that exist for the two. Experts recommended using treatments such as petroleum jelly and ice cubes on the sores to numb the pain and boost the healing process. For genital herpes though, these treatments are not advisable. Genital herpes is treated differently as experts recommend the use of warm baths, keeping the affected areas both clean and dry, and Aloe Vera extracts. In addition, wearing loose underwear so that the affected areas are not disturbed is also advised by medical experts.

6. Different Perception
While both cold sores and genital herpes occur quite commonly, the perceptions people hold of the two are distinct in nature. Due to the region where they occur, genital herpes are taken more seriously, perhaps also because of the way through which it limits sexual contact. Cold sores on the other hand are taken less seriously. Since cold sores are like blisters and do not limit sexual contact, they are taken too heavy heartedly.

However, even with the differences mentioned above, it is still quite common to come across people who confuse cold sores with herpes. There are several reasons for this confusion too, as both cold sores and herpes are not curable. In addition, the two can reoccur and the causes for their reoccurrence such as stress and weakened immune systems are quite similar. Thus, if one wishes to reduce the outbreaks of the two, it’s advised to visit a doctor and undergo proper medications.

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