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The Truth About Herpes, Cold Sores, and STDs

The stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections can prevent people from fully enjoying their sex lives.

Approximately 20 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are reported each year in the United States. Despite being so common, many people still have questions about STIs and sexual health. Common questions include “is oral herpes an STI?” or “how do I know if I have an STI?”

The stigma surrounding STIs can prevent young people and adults from accessing the information they need to keep themselves or their partners safe. Many people live with STIs like genital herpes without experiencing any symptoms or significant disruptions to their sex lives.

STIs do not have to get in the way of a healthy and happy sex life. Read ahead for more information on the differences between oral herpes, genital herpes, and STIs.

Woman smiling holding her fingers to each side of her mouth.What is Herpes Simplex 1 (HSV-1)?

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is commonly referred to as “oral herpes.” This strain of the herpes virus typically affects the mouth. An estimated fifty to eighty percent of American adults are currently living with this strain of virus.

Many people do not experience symptoms for oral herpes. Common symptoms of oral herpes include:

  • Blister-like sores on the mouth. These sores are also referred to as “cold sores” or “fever blisters.” The sores can sometimes spread to other parts of the face or neck. They can also be transferred to someone’s genitals.
  • Painful burning on the mouth. Someone’s lips may burn, tingle, or itch for several days prior to the emergence of a new sore.
  • Flu-like symptoms. The initial outbreak of herpes is typically the most severe and may include flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, and headache.

Oral herpes is highly contagious and easily transmitted through contact with infected saliva, mucous membranes, or skin. Someone is more likely to spread oral herpes while they have an active outbreak. However, some people experience “asymptomatic shedding,” which means they shed the virus, even when no visible outbreak or symptoms are present.

What is Herpes Simplex 2 (HSV-2)?

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is also commonly referred to as “genital herpes.” This strain of the herpes virus typically affects the genitals. An estimated 1 in 6 people aged 14 to 49 currently live with this strain of the herpes virus.

Similar to oral herpes, many people may not experience any symptoms of genital herpes. Common symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • Blister-like sores on the genitals. Some people experience “outbreaks” of the virus, where painful sores appear on the genitals. These sores can be spread to other areas of the body (e.g. mouth, eyes).
  • Scabs or itching. When blister-like sores heal, they leave behind scabs and cause persistent itching until they clear completely.
  • Flu-like symptoms. Similar to oral herpes, someone with genital herpes may experience flu-like symptoms such as headaches, fever, or swollen lymph nodes.
  • Painful urination. If someone has an outbreak of sores on their vulva or penis, urination may irritate the sores, causing a burning sensation.

Some people experience recurring “outbreaks” with blister-like sores. Others are asymptomatic, meaning they carry the virus, but do not experience any visible or noticeable symptoms. The virus can be transmitted to partners during sex through skin-to-skin contact or direct contact with sores.

Can Someone Have Both HSV-1 and HSV-2?

Because HSV-1 and HSV-2 are two different strains of herpes virus, it is possible for someone to contract both strains. Someone with oral herpes can transmit the virus to the mouth or genitals of a sexual partner during oral sex. Someone with genital herpes can also transmit the virus to a partner during oral sex.

It is important for someone living with either strain to protect themselves from additional infections and from transmitting the virus to partners.

What are STIs?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections typically spread through anal, oral, or vaginal sex. Some STIs, like the human papilloma virus or genital herpes, can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. STIs can be viral (e.g. herpes), bacterial (e.g. chlamydia), or parasitical (e.g. trichomoniasis).

Many people have STIs without experiencing any symptoms. The only way for someone to know if they have an STI is for them to get tested. Abstaining from sex or practicing safer sex with barrier methods can prevent transmission of STIs between sexual partners.

Not all STIs can be cured, but all STIs can be treated. For example, bacterial and parasitical STIs can be cured with prescription medication. Viral STIs, like herpes, can be treated with medication.

Is oral herpes an STI?

HSV-1, the strain of herpes that causes sores around the mouth, is technically not an STI. This strain of the herpes virus is traditionally spread through sharing drinks, kissing, and other non-sexual contact. However, someone with oral herpes can transmit the virus to a partner during sex.

This strain can still be transmitted to the genitals during oral sex. Someone who contracts HSV-1 through oral sex would experience outbreaks of sores on their genitals rather than their mouth. Someone with oral herpes should not perform oral sex during an outbreak. 

How Can Someone Prevent the Spread of Herpes?

Opened condom package.

People living with oral or genital herpes can still enjoy a happy and healthy sex life. A little additional precaution and planning can go a long way to prevent spreading herpes to a partner. Someone with HSV can abstain from sex during breakouts and use barrier methods to keep their partner safe.

Ways to prevent the spread of herpes includes:

  • Be selective about sexual activity. Do not have sex (including oral sex) during an outbreak. This includes while sores are healing or scabbed.
  • Use barrier methods. Use barrier methods like condoms or dental dams to limit skin-to-skin contact during sex.
  • Use antiviral medications. Antiviral medications like Valtrex can reduce outbreaks and transmission of the virus to partners.

Someone can spread the virus to a partner whether or not they have an active outbreak. It is important for partners to practice open and honest communication surrounding sex and preventing transmission. Learning about herpes together and planning to practice safer sex can help to keep both partners safe.

How is Herpes Treated?

Antiviral medications have been shown to prevent outbreaks, reduce the severity and duration of outbreaks, and reduce the likelihood of transmitting the virus to a partner. Main treatments available on the market include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. These well-researched treatment options are available in pill form.

Those interested in living symptom-free longer can now view their options for sexual health treatment online. We can prescribe safe and effective treatments like Valtrex for you, right here at eDrugstore.com.

Shelby is a public health professional with research and field experience in sexual and reproductive health. She holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).